Founding Gardeners (Earth Day Reading Project)

Mountain Laurel 'Kalmia latifolia'

Did you know that...

John Adams experimented extensively with manure making.

George Washington left his generals just before the invasion of New York so that he could write to his estate manager about planting groves of flowering trees at Mount Vernon.

The garden of Philadelphia farmer and botanist John Bartram played a significant role in the Constitutional Convention.

I learned these intriguing facts about the men that shaped our country from read a fascinating book written by British design historian Andrea Wulf.

 The Founding Gardeners
~ The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation

examines the gardens and farms of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. It explores their love of gardens, nature and agriculture and the influence it had on their political ideas. The book details how each of these men developed their properties: Mount Vernon (Washington), Peacefield (Adam's farm in Quincy), Monticello (Jefferson) and Montpelier (Madison).

Swan House

A fascinating aspect of this book was to learn how each of these men viewed their natural surroundings and how this influenced their approach to farming and gardening. The book describes how George Washington liberated his garden from its 'claustrophobic corsets of geometry' after returning from the war. He was the first to plant trees and shrubs from all thirteen states as a visual expression of the young nation.

Jefferson meticulously categorized native plants by medicinal, edible, useful and ornamental purposes. He was a pioneer in growing native plants and incorporating them in his garden design.

May-apple 'Podophyllum peltatum'

As I was reading about these great men I couldn't help but think how we have come full circle in gardening as we again encourage these practices today.

All these men also firmly believed that small-scale farming in principle fostered independent people. 'As long as a man had a piece of land of his own that was sufficient to support his family...he was independent'. (Benjamin Franklin)

Agriculture imagery was often infused in their political writings and speeches. These men exchanged the latest gardening and agricultural books, shared valuable seeds of new crops and reported about their harvests and compared their experiments. Sound familiar? As the first president of the Agricultural Society, James Madison spoke about living off the land without destroying it. Interestingly all these men practiced crop rotation a system I use in my vegetable garden each season.

Adams wrote more on the subject of composting in his diary than any other subject. Over the years  he experimented extensively with manure mixing it with mud, lime and seaweed.  Washington was the first American to build a stercorary, 'a covered dung depository where manure could be stored, aged and mixed.'  These men were truly groundbreaking in this subject since many of the farmers at the time found this practice controversial. 

In a speech in 1818 James Madison warned that humanity could not expect nature to be made subservient to the use of man. Man, he believed had to find a place within the symmetry of nature without destroying it.

Henry David Thoreau and John Muir are synonymous with the environmental movement but this book traces it back to our Founding Fathers.  They found a balance with nature and widely encouraged the protection of the environment. They may have differed in their political view but they had a common bond and friendship. These men were not only the shapers of our country but the seminal thinkers in the environmental movement.

I have always found that gardeners are some of the kindest and most caring people I know. I love how gardening was a common core that these men shared and were passionate about in their own ways. For me they are each an inspiration to modern man in the pursuit to live harmoniously with nature.
"All Nature's differences keeps all Nature's peace"  ~ Alexander Pope

Rose Campion 'Lychnis coronaria'
I am joining The Sage Butterfly for the Earth Day Reading Project where you profile a book that has influenced your gardening practices or view on your environment.

Special note on photographs ~
I took these photographs at the Atlanta History Center. The Swan House is one of the most photographed landmarks in Atlanta. This classically styled house was built by Edward H. Inman, heir to cotton brokerage fortune, in 1928. The Tullie Smith house farm is a plantation-plain house built in 1840. There are several gardens at the history center featuring native plants, heirloom vegetables, old fashioned ornamentals and 10 acres of woodlands.


  1. Karin, the book you profiled sounds great. Having lived in the historic triangle for almost 20 years and visiting Monticello many times, I would love to read this book. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. This is such a timely post, Karin. We will be visiting Mount Vernon in a few weeks. I'll get to see those trees of George Washington. Can't wait to see his garden. Do you think the species from the original states are still there?

    1. It has been many years since I've been to Mount Vernon and I honestly can't remember. Please do let me know how your tour of the garden is and what you see. I think this is a perfect time of year to see that garden.

    2. I'll definitely keep an eye out for them and let you know.

  3. Karin, Though I am not American, I still think that this sounds like an interesting read and a very appropriate recommendation for the Sage Butterfly's Earth Day reading project.

    1. Jennifer, I think this is an interesting read even if you aren't American. These men were gardeners, farmers and botanist above all else.

  4. Very interesting, informative, and unique post, Karin. I did know about Washington and Jefferson, but little of the others. I have noticed through the years, how many influential and highly intelligent people garden. I always attributed it to a calming and relaxing part of their live which enabled them to open their minds to creativity and problem solving. I have found some of my best problem solving (in architecture) came from just being in the garden. When fully relaxed and thinking of very little, the ideas just pop into the mind then flow.

  5. Karin I have longed to read this book since I received is on the To Be Read pile and I will move it up a notch or 2...I love history especially that from the 1700s and mixing that with nature and gardening is the best for me...I did know a bit about our founding fathers and their love of the gardening and nature....they were some of our first and best phenologists keeping wonderful records of nature....great book!!

  6. This sounds like a very interesting read...thanks for sharing about it.

  7. Sounds like a really interesting book and a great summary on your blog post! I didn't know any of that! Thanks.

  8. While I knew just a tiny bit about these men now I'm intrigued to find out more. Sounds like a great book, thanks for the review.

  9. This is an incredible book with so much important information. I think it is so interesting that John Adams wrote about composting and seemed to enjoy all of his experiments. They were all apparently very connected to the land. Our founding fathers were such incredible people, and this just makes them even more so. Thank you for participating in The Earth Day Reading Project. I enjoyed reading about your selection, and I have another book to add to my list.

  10. This book is definitely on my list! I love that Washington planted something from all 13 of the original states. I would imagine their records would be fascinating.

  11. I will *have* to get this book! I knew that Jefferson and Madison were passionate gardeners/ farmers but obviously there's a lot more to know than that. Your pictures are beautiful!

  12. Oh, now that is a book I will have to read!!! I love the history of gardening as much as the science. These kinds of books bring important historical figures to life--to help us appreciate them even more! Thanks for the recommendation!

  13. This book sounds wonderful! :o) I've been to Mt Vernon and have plans to go to Monticello this spring/summer. I agree with Beth from Plant Postings: history + science is fascinating to me!

  14. I am off to Amazon now to order this book. Thanks so much for the review.

  15. Now this is a book I would love to read! I'm the most familiar with Jefferson's gardening exploits than the others, especially his fruit and vegetable gardening, although not so much his native plantings. I love history, and gardening, so this book for me sounds like a perfect fit for me.

  16. I love biographical/historical stuff, so I will have to look for this book....


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One of my favorite things about blogging is the conversation with readers. Leave a comment and let's get talking. ~Karin

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