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Saturday, December 20, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 6/3/2009

Garden lessons from George Washington

Can you imagine walking through George Washington's garden at Mount Vernon? You might picture tall fountains, lush landscaping, and exotic species of every kind of plant imaginable. Not exactly.

I was lucky enough to be one of the chaperones on my son's eighth-grade trip to Washington recently and I just had to make a detour to walk the grounds at Mount Vernon. If you remember your history, Mount Vernon, 16 miles south of Washington, would have been occupied by Washington and his family in the mid-to-late 1700s.

There was nothing extravagant about gardens back then. The extravagance was Washington's innovative greenhouse that was heated by a wood stove with ducts under the floorboards. It would allow the family to feast on fruit, vegetables, and herbs all year round. His homestead is still a self-sufficient farm with cows, chickens, and sheep.

Washington was a wealthy man, which is obvious by the size of his land holdings. The sprawling farm on the Potomac River is breathtaking. According to its Web site, Mount Vernon is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, America's oldest national preservation organization, founded in 1853.

My camera was clicking when I walked through the kitchen garden. It wasn't right out the back door, but it was close. Herbs may have been planted closer to the kitchen in Washington's day. Today they are neatly organized behind a brick wall to keep critters from eating the plants before the harvest can make it to the dinner table.

The organized grid pattern of the vegetables with easy walking space between beds was a lesson we all should learn. Each bed was no more than four feet wide and about 15 feet long. The soil looked like it had been amended and would be easy to dig. Eight to 10 rows of neatly planted cabbage were next to two rows of onions. Across the path were 15 rows of lettuce, all in different stages of growth.

This illustrates the point that staggering your sowing will extend your harvest. That goes for lettuce, radishes, corn, and many other vegetables. Make sure you are planting a few early tomatoes as well as late varieties so you will be able to pick fresh fruit well into late summer.

I really liked the trellis system they came up with at Mount Vernon for the beans. Staying true to the supplies available back in the mid 1800s, gardeners used twigs stuck into the ground to support the sprouting vines. Twigs are easy to find and easy to discard at the end of the season.

Some of the vegetables planted in the Mount Vernon garden will have a long shelf life if they are preserved. You can do the same in your garden. Plant a few rows of beets, corn, tomatoes, and cabbage to can for winter. Make plans to construct a cold frame this winter to enjoy fresh lettuce even under the snow.

If you are in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, stop to take a stroll through the garden, and don't forget to stop by the greenhouse and take some starts home with you. I had to come home with a few - I did not dig them out of the garden and I have a receipt to prove it.



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