“I Cannot Tell a Lie, I Planted That Poplar!”

Posted on June 27, 2011

Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf

What did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams all think was the greatest symbol of the new American patriotism? The Eagle? The Constitution? No. It was their garden. This is the great idea behind Andrea Wulf’s new book, Founding Gardeners. In it she tracks the personal correspondences, garden layouts and observations by outsiders of the ‘Big 4′ to construct an image of men intensely focused on the economic potential of both native and foreign plants to turn their new country into a powerhouse.

Think the conservation movement started with Teddy Roosevelt? Think again. James Madison, no less than 20 years after the Constitution was signed, passionately argued in front of Congress that it was not acceptable to farm until land grew barren and then chop down forests to clear more room but that a system using manure and crop rotation had to be implemented.

The Big 4 were very aware of the political precedents even their everyday decisions could make. Even the design of their gardens was controversial. When Washington inherited Mt. Vernon, he redesigned it. The straigt paths were too monarchic. He replaced them with the serpentine bowling green, a good Republican design. Wahoos will appreciate this design at U.Va.

When Jefferson and Adams went to Britain after the war, while they waited for a particular proposition to be considered at court, they toured the finest British gardens, always taking painstaking notes and sending seeds back home where appropriate.

These men deeply believed not only that agriculture was the right path for America but that farmers were the best and most noble. This argument framed itself in interesting ways. It meant opposing the establishment of a Central Bank, which would favor the insipid merchant class. It went so far as dictating the location of Washington, DC, putting it closer to the untamed wild west. One of my favorite anecdotes? The Potomac used to be teeming with fish, so much that you could wander down the White House lawn, run a net through the water, and come up with dinner.

It’s romantic to think of these Generals, Presidents and Congressmen pining away for their gardens while hard at work or preparing for battle, but that’s exactly what happened. Every Sunday, without fail, he would write pages of detailed instructions for his head gardener, even during the brutal winter at Valley Forge. Jefferson risked his health by riding ahead of his wagon in a snowstorm when returning home to Monticello. Each one of the Fathers spent nearly all of his waking hours tending his gardens.

This is an incredible book. Whether you are a naturalist who wants to know more about the beginnings of this country, you are a history buff who is tired of the some old nonsense or you want to know more about being a true patriot, this book will delight and entertain. It’s wonderful to read descriptions of our untouched country from the people who were willing to die for it. “Founding Gardeners” will change the way you look at your backyard garden, the trees lining your street or even an untouched patch of forest.

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