In order to ensure a lush, bountiful, and successful spring, Mount Vernon’s gardening team is hard at work throughout the winter. When the temperatures dip to the 30s and below, our gardeners are doing exactly what George Washington’s did 200 years ago. Phillip Miller’s The Gardeners Kalendar (the 16th edition was published in 1778) offered advice on “…directing the necessary works to be done in the kitchen, fruit and pleasure garden…” which remains pertinent and valuable today.
Winter dormancy, a period of slow growth, is the time to prune standard, semi-dwarf, and espaliered apple and pear trees. This process involves removing dead, weak, or crossing branches as well as general thinning so that air and light can reach all the branches. The result of proper winter pruning is plenty of apples and pears for picking in the early fall.
The most important winter activity at Mount Vernon is spading, or turning, the soil in our numerous gardens and adding rich, natural compost. We make our own compost from vegetable matter, ground leaves, grass clippings, straw, and assortment of manure from our rare animal breeds. Many 18th century horticulturists, or gardeners, recognized the importance of using compost to create healthy soil for plants to grow in; and George Washington was no exception! At Mount Vernon, Washington constructed a dung repository next to the paddock so compostable materials could be easily wheeled to the structure and the process of decomposition could begin.
The results and benefits of all our winter activities will unfold throughout the Spring as the weather turns warmer and the gardens start blooming.
Gardening with George Washington
Read the following diary entry written by George Washington on March 3, 1785. Ask students to create a list of the different types of trees Washington planted. Using a tree field guide, or The Trees of North America website, identify which trees were present on the Mount Vernon estate in 1785.
What is the difference between decay and decomposition? Create a mini science lab in your classroom to observe how compost is made with the following experiment.
*This activity is from the Department of Horticulture at Virginia Tech.