Oh, how he longed to be outside landscaping and plotting his garden, and thus to be “relieved from the drudgery of the pen.” Substitute “laptop” or “word processor” for “the pen” — and the springtime sentiments of our first President, George Washington, ring as poignantly true today as two centuries ago.
Indeed, Washington’s love for the nation he helped create was “deeply rooted in his passion for nature, agriculture and gardens,” according to an engaging new book released just in time for Virginia’s Historic Garden Week. The book is Andrea Wulf’s “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation.”
Even as a teenaged surveyor in 1749 here in what would become Rappahannock County, Washington spent his working days gazing in wonder at the “most beautiful Groves” and “admiring the Trees & richness of the Land.”
Foreshadowing today’s concerns about invasive species (whether stinkbugs or ailanthus), Washington refused to plant any fashionable horticultural imports (especially those from England!) Instead, from the woods at his Mount Vernon estate, he transplanted native cedars, pines, poplars, laurels, dogwoods and rhododendron.
Another founding father, farmer and gardener, James Madison, would become worried about the “rapid decline” of Virginia’s economy due to “worn out land.” In a May 1818 speech as the first president of the newly formed Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Madison warned about man’s destruction of nature and the need for forest and soil conservation. Harmony with nature was not a romantic ideal but an economic necessity, he forcefully argued, well ahead of his time.
Wulf, who lives in Britain, will discuss these and other themes from her book in April appearances at Washington’s Mount Vernon (April 16), Madison’s Montpelier (April 17), Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (April 18) and James Monroe’s Oak Hill (April 26).
Closer to home, just across the Rappahannock River around Hume and Orlean, on April 20-21, a number of handsome homes and beautiful gardens will be on tour as part the 78th annual Historic Garden Week (for more information: vagardenweek.org or 540-937-4133). They follow in the Founders’ footsteps.