Restoring Mount Vernon’s gardens and grounds

Mount Vernon’s current landscape looks more like it did during George Washington’s era than it has since Washington actually lived there.

Dean Norton is part of the reason why. As the historic site’s director of horticulture, Norton leads a team intent on interpreting the plantation’s acreage much like conservators and architects interpret its buildings: to tell the story of Washington’s life and times.

The Upper Garden at Mount Vernon now looks much like George and Martha Washington planned it almost 250 years ago, says Director of Horticulture Dean Norton.

Norton, 61, has worked at the site almost 44 years, beginning with a job picking up trash in the summer when he was a sophomore in high school.

After spending three years at Clemson University earning a horticultural degree, he returned to a job tending boxwoods and quickly worked his way into the role of horticulture director, a job he has held since 1980.

“My life is here. My resume is pretty boring,” he says, but acknowledges there are some great perquisites. “My four daughters now think of Mount Vernon as their backyard.”

As the 37th person since Washington to oversee the cultivation and maintenance of the grounds, Norton still picks up trash, only not as much.

He also is responsible for overseeing a dramatic, decades-long effort to research and restore Mount Vernon’s 436 acres, including about 60 acres that are high maintenance. About 10 of those acres are truly high maintenance gardens and landscapes.

And while that’s just a fraction of the 8,000 acres Washington once owned, it’s enough to keep Norton plenty busy.

Mount Vernon’s significance stems not only from its history as Washington’s home, but it also is the nation’s first major historic preservation project.

And accurate preservation remains the top priority, Norton says. Washington oversaw all aspects of Mount Vernon’s landscape, borrowing ideas from English design books.

Its grounds more closely resemble Washington’s vision because of all the archival and archaeological research done since the Mount Vernon Ladies Association purchased the estate from Washington’s heirs in 1858.

“Every year, we get closer and closer to what it was in Washington’s time,” he says. “The gardens have been so well-documented and researched. The only garden that may be a little askew may be the kitchen garden.”

But that’s deliberate: The kitchen garden was the first outdoor space the Ladies Association researched and restored, and Mount Vernon maintains their work, instead of changing it to reflect further insight into Washington’s era, as a tribute to the association and its own special history.

Norton says a big change is the ease of research that the Internet enables. “The only really missing pieces is archaeology,” he says.

Recently, he has overseen the restoration of Washington’s Upper Garden, which started as a fruit and nut garden but later was changed to a pleasure garden where a 10-foot-wide edge of flowers bordered vegetable beds.

“We feel extremely pleased that as a visitor today walks these gardens, they’re looking at the same garden that George and Martha did 250 years ago,” he says.

Norton says the site benefits from its close proximity to Washington, D.C., and the revenue from more than 1 million visitors a year.

It also is benefiting from tremendous advances in research.

“When they were trying to restore it back in the late 1800s, archaeology was done with a bulldozer. Now it’s an amazing science that involves chemical analysis, finding pollen and seeds and all this different stuff,” he says. “No one did anything wrong in the past. They did what they could with the information they had.”

And Norton’s work continues to evolve as the information does. He plans to explore a wilderness area that Washington had planted with wagon loads of Virginia pine and had a gravel path snaking through it.

“We are always searching, always researching and ready to make changes if we find that something we were interpreting, from whatever moment it was, is incorrect,” he says. “None of these gardens are mine. They’re all George Washington’s. I feel incredibly honored to the caretaker of his landscape.”

via Restoring Mount Vernon’s gardens and grounds – The Post and Courier.

Chagall mosaic moves from private garden to National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden

Chagall mosaic moves from private garden to National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden - The Washington Post

Photo: Washington Post

Evelyn Nef was a patron of the arts who loved the way that painting, sculpture, music and dance could capture the joys and sorrows of life, and so it was not surprising that when she died widowed and childless in 2009, at the age of 96, she would leave her choicest artworks to the nation.

The National Gallery of Art became the recipient of a mosaic by Marc Chagall, 31 drawings, 46 prints and 25 illustrated books by such artists as Auguste Renoir, Wassily Kandinsky and Fernand Léger, along with early prints and other paper works by Chagall and Pablo Picasso.

Transferring the paper art from Nef’s home in Georgetown to the gallery was a straightforward if meticulous undertaking by the institution’s art handlers and carpenters, experienced in packing and ferrying priceless pieces. Moving the mosaic from a garden on 28th Street NW to the Mall became a 31 / 2-year journey of epic challenge by a legion of conservators, mosaicists, carpenters, handlers, masons, engineers and architects.

Now installed in its new location in the National Sculpture Garden, the mosaic has been given a fresh and public incarnation, fittingly as a quiet monument to a woman who became the master of sparkling reinvention. Sitting sweetly in a sylvan corner of the sculpture garden near Ninth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, “Orphée” speaks to Chagall’s friendship with Nef and her husband, John Nef, and to the avant garde artist’s lifelong exploration of surreal figures and disjointed mythical and sacred themes.

John Nef, an economic historian and art lover, had known Chagall before the Nefs married in 1964. When the artist first proposed a mosaic for their Georgetown garden, Evelyn “Evvie” Nef imagined a small plaque for the garden wall. The next year, they went to his atelier in the south of France, where Chagall unveiled his marquette of “Orphée” and informed them that the resulting mosaic would be a jaw-dropping 10 feet high and 17 feet wide. The creation was a gift, but the Nefs had to build a 30-foot-high brick wall to house the piece. It was unveiled with the artist in attendance on a balmy evening in November 1971.

Guests found a scene of Chagall’s typically desultory but enchanting images: Orpheus (but no Eurydice), the Three Graces, a couple lying under a tree, a huddle of immigrants and skyscrapers and Pegasus and an angel floating around a golden sun.

Chagall’s powers as a colorist are evident: The work glows in its blocks of yellow and blue, becomes more intensely hued close up, and carries a transcendent luminosity. Assembled by a legendary Italian mosaicist Lino Melano, who also executed mosaics for Picasso, Georges Braque and Léger. “Orphée” is composed of countless thousands of hand-cut pieces — tesserae — of colored glass and an array of stone. The stone absorbs the light, the glass reflects it.

via Chagall mosaic moves from private garden to National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden – The Washington Post.

Recommended reading: “Writing the Garden – A Literary Conversation Across Two Centuries”

Gardening, more than most outdoor activities, has always attracted a cult of devoted literate practitioners; people who like to dig, it would appear, also like to write. And many of them write exceedingly well.

In this thoughtful, personal, and embracing consideration of garden writing, garden historian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers selects and discusses the best of these writers. She makes her case by picking delightful examples that span two centuries, arranging the writers by what they did and how they saw themselves: nurserymen, foragers, conversationalists, philosophers, humorists, etc. Her discussions and appreciations of these diverse personalities are enhanced and supported by informed appraisals of their talents, obsessions, and idiosyncrasies, and by extensive extracts from their writings. Rogers provides historical background, anecdotal material, and insight into how these garden writers worked. And wherever appropriate, she illustrates her story with images from their books, so you can not only read what they wrote but also see what they were describing. Since gardens are by their very nature ephemeral, these visual clues from the pages of their books, many reproduced in color, are as close as we will come to the originals.

What makes “Writing the Garden…” such a joy to read is that it is not simply a collection of extracts, but real discussions and examinations of the personalities who made their mark on how we design, how we plant, and how we think about what is for many one of life’s lasting pleasures. Starting with “Women in the Garden” (Jane Loudon, Fran­ces Garnet Wolseley, and Gertrude Jekyll) and concluding with “Philosophers in the Garden” (Henry David Tho­reau, Michael Pollan, and Allen Lacy), this is a book that encompasses the full sweep of the best garden writing in the English language.

Writing the Garden is co-published by the New York Society Library and the Foundation for Landscape Studies in association with David R. Godine, Publisher.

via Writing the Garden – David R. Godine, Publisher.

Seattle Chinese Garden is now dog-friendly

Zen Garden Dreaming says: “Not just foo dogs but real dogs are welcome in this garden!”

The Garden gates are now open to dogs with their two-footed friends, even those lacking this pair’s perfect garden names. Note that Willow in the photo above is on a leash. The Garden’s big field to the north of “Knowing the Spring Courtyard” is great for walking dogs, but also is enjoyed by children (and many other visitors). Please bring plastic baggies for you know what. The adjacent South Seattle Community College Arboretum also is a lovely place to extend your walk.

Volunteers Welcome Too! Chinese Garden manager Bob Seely welcomes volunteers to help with mulching, pruning, thinning, and other winter projects. Dates and hours are flexible. Please contact Bob at 206.849.4055 (cell) or or

Garden Location:

South Seattle Community College (north end), 6000 16th Avenue SW, North Entrance/Parking Lot. For more information:

via Seattle Chinese Garden is now dog-friendly | West Seattle Herald / White Center News.

Garden Talk: Mandi Atkinson of Lan Su Chinese Garden

We kick off 2014 and our Garden Talk interview series with horticulturist Mandi Atkinson of the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon.  Mandi in the japanese maple tree

Q. What led you to gardening and eventually, to the Lan Su Chinese Garden? I started gardening during a period of significant personal loss. It was a way to take my mind off things, to guide me through my troubles.  It has been my passion since. What drew me to Lan Su was the banana plant and how it appeals to our auditory senses.  It’s always planted underneath the drip tiles so that one can hear the sound of the raindrops falling on its broad leaves.  I’ve always thought of plants as something that we can enjoy with our eyes, sense of smell, taste and touch. Learning this encouraged me to learn more about different design elements in the garden.

Q. What fascinates you most about your work? I find design as perhaps the most fascinating.  This space is created in such a way that it invokes all senses, sometimes all at once.  It’s also designed to be enjoyed throughout all seasons and it has certain attributes that make it larger than it actually is.  During my first few weeks working here, I actually kept getting lost in the garden!



Q. What are your favorite things in the garden? I love the windmill palm. What a multi-sensory plant!  The fibrous parts of its trunk are rough to the touch and were once used to make ropes in China.  It also has these long finger-like palm leaves that shake when the wind rushes through it.  As that happens, you hear a sound that makes me think of frogs in the spring.  The humming birds sip on the nectar of their yellow blooms in spring, followed by plump blue berries resembling the ones we see at our super markets.


Photo: Oregon Live


Q. Any favorite season? I think it’s the fall now leading up to the winter. I used to not like winters at all.  The summers were always my favorites in the past. I think it’s because of the fall color and the chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemums have always been my favorite flower, even before I worked at the Garden. Since we have a diversity of plants at the garden, the fall season brings forth a wide range of color.  Also, on rainy days, people don’t think to come to the garden and you’ll get this place all to yourself. Most of the garden is covered and there are plenty pavilions to hide out under on a rainy day.

Q. And is there anything the garden has taught you? Being observant and patient. Not letting ego get in the way, not feeling like I should be totally in control of how the garden turns out. In a Ted Talk with Michael Pollan, he said some of the best gardeners are the ones that are also good observers, who pay close attention to the ecosystem as a whole and not just the plant, insect, or soil by itself.  Just as an organ in the body can’t function by itself, a plant is also interconnected with everything else in the garden.  This is a concept I learned working at a permaculture institute in Colorado.  I see it especially here because I am here throughout the year.

Q. Any special stories involving the garden? There’s one that truly stands out from two years ago, a woman who approached me about the persimmon tree and then unloaded to me about the struggles she was facing.  She kept telling me that she felt at peace in our garden, that “she needed to be here.”  I took a half hour of my day to walk with her and just listen.  It inspired me to look further into horticulture therapy, which is what I am studying now.  I’m not sure where it will take me but I hope to eventually put together memory walks at the garden for patients with Alzheimer’s.



Q. What other gardens would you like to visit? The Kew Gardens. Their dedication to preserving biodiversity intrigues me.  They have plant specimens from all over the world, including the rare, unusual and some with the strangest adaptations.  I’ve always been interested in plants and the stories that they might have; how they are pollinated, legends they might have, or insects they might be prone to.  I find stories like these fascinating because it gives the plant an identity beyond a name.