A Frustrated Farmer, By George

THE REAL DIRT

February 20, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Tuesday is George Washington's birthday. This is my cue to buy garden supplies for spring. To do this, I trade large stacks of paper with George Washington's picture on them for a few small seed packets, the contents of which may or may not grow.

Gardening can be frustrating. George, I think, would understand.

Washington was an avid, if hard-luck, agriculturist who happened to be better at other things. Standing up in a boat. Making a dollar go a long way. Putting America on the map.

He would have traded all that for fame in farming.

"Nothing pleased him more than to be working his fields," says Dean Norton, horticulturist at Washington's historic home in Mount Vernon, Va.

Much as he loved cultivating the soil, Washington suffered numerous setbacks during the 45 years he spent at Mount Vernon.

His vineyard failed. His favorite trees died. Some of his gardeners ran off for parts unknown. He invented a newfangled plow that broke. And every time he tried to landscape his terrain, along came a drought to wipe out his work.

Undaunted, he pushed on, experimenting with revolutionary horticultural techniques and tools. Tobacco was the bumper crop in 1754 when Washington bought the estate, but he quickly recognized that plant's soil-depleting qualities and replaced it with wheat.

He plowed under all plant residues and slathered his fields with animal manures and rich river muck dredged up from the nearby Potomac. He advertised for a farm manager who was "Midas-like . . . who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation toward gold."

Washington fed the hard clay soil at Mount Vernon better than he could his troops at Valley Forge.

"In many ways -- fertilizers, crop rotation -- he was ahead of his time. Given modern-day tools, he would have done very well," says Norton.

Washington had more success running the country than the countryside, but not as much fun.

"His farming career wasn't flattering, and he didn't write any new chapters in agriculture. But he loved it," says Norton.

Washington's favorite pastime was exploring his 8,000-acre estate in search of unique trees and shrubs, and transplanting them nearer his home. Ninety percent of that flora succumbed to drought. But 16 of Washington's dearest trees survive, including several hollies, tulip poplars and a 135-foot white ash.

When his disease-riddled vineyard went bust, Washington replaced it with a bounteous orchard filled with apple, peach, pear and cherry trees. Norton and his staff are working to restore the orchard to its former beauty.

Washington sometimes had trouble maintaining his own garden crew. It wasn't unusual for the European gardeners he hired to disappear once they reached America. "After Washington paid for their trip, they skedaddled," says Norton.

He kept abreast of his garden staff and complained about sloppy work, particularly seed-saving techniques.

"He got very upset when they failed to collect seed from the garden," especially from rare and expensive specimens, says Norton. "Once he acquired a plant, Washington fully expected never to have to look for it again."

Seedlings were reared in the nursery, the hub of all horticultural activity. Rather than use standard wooden rails to stave off hungry livestock, Washington encircled his seedbeds with living hedges made of hawthorns and prickly honey locusts. It worked.

Records show Washington tested 60 major crops in his fields, including oat, barley and alfalfa, despite facing "insurmountable odds," says Norton. "Tobacco had been grown on that land for so long that the soil was totally depleted by the time he got around to it."

Nonetheless, the kitchen garden at Mount Vernon was filled with sumptuous crops, including beets, carrots, potatoes and cabbage, Martha Washington's favorite dish. They also raised broccoli, spelled "brokley" in Washington's journals.

Eighteenth-century gardeners used phonetic spellings, causing problems for horticultural historians, says Norton.

"I can't spell the names of vegetables correctly anymore because I'm so used to spelling things their way."

Washington's roller-coaster farming career lifts him out of history books and into my heart. Perhaps we're kindred spirits.

Of course, Washington was the father of his country. Mine is a smaller domain. I am king of my garden, as well as lord of the flies and other pests that rally there.

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