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.”