The year is 1776. It’s August, and General George Washington and his troops are in Manhattan hoping to hold off a British attack. In the midst of preparing for battle, George Washington sits down to write a letter to his land manager at Mount Vernon sharing some of his new garden design ideas. He’s requesting that groves be planted on either side of his house. Although he will be away for the next eight years leading the Revolutionary War, his thoughts will continue to drift towards nature, art, and design.
George Washington. Beloved general. First President. Gardener. And artist.
This past week I attended a lecture by design historian and writer Andrea Wulf, author of the book “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation.” It made me realize that gardening is an art form in itself, and revealed that our nation’s early history was forged not only by brilliant thinkers and brave people, but also dedicated artists.
It turns out Washington wasn’t the only Founding Father who viewed plants and soil as a medium of art through which beauty and truth can be portrayed.
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all were garden-artists.
Though different in many ways, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson bonded over a two-month garden tour trip in England in 1786 when both of them were serving as overseas diplomats. They noticed that many of the plants growing in England were American species, grown from specimens shipped to England by American botanist John Bartram in the 1750’s. As they toured ornamental farms in England, they each were captivated by the beauty of America’s native plants and began planning their gardens back home made entirely out of native American species.
For the Founding Fathers, gardens were a form of political art—showcasing the beautiful and useful all-American plants thriving without non-native plants.
Thomas Jefferson’s landscape design at Monticello represents the history of the American landscape—from its wilderness days to its civilized colonial times. A visitor to Monticello is lead up the hillside estate through a rugged forest, past neatly manicured pastures, beside the terrace vegetable garden, and lastly to the formal flower gardens that surround the mansion. Jefferson’s artistic eye is also on display in his design of a utilitarian vegetable garden which combines the beautiful and functional aspects of nature. Purple, white, and green vegetables are beautifully displayed in adjacent rows, while lovely cherry trees provide the gardener shade on the outer-walkways.
James Madison loved gardening too and argued for the protection of American forests, which he saw were in danger of complete destruction. With the rise of tobacco farming, many forests were being cut down and replaced with tobacco fields, which depleted soil nutrients in about four years. Madison knew it was agriculturally and economically unsustainable to destroy the forests in such a way and urged for change. On his estate at Montpelier, Madison set aside an old forest of oaks, tulip trees, and hickories, which he would explore for inspiration while drafting the U.S. Constitution.
It’s inspiring to learn that our nation’s founding leaders were also avid artists with an eye for garden and landscape design. Along with teaching children how to draw and paint in school, maybe we should be teaching about gardening as both a part of art and science education. Regardless, we can all take a lesson from the founding fathers in making time for art and allowing our creativity to let loose. If they could find time to imagine and garden, we surely can too.
Did you know that America’s Founding Fathers were gardeners and artists? Do you think gardening should be included as a part of children’s art classes in school?