Gone is the tall boxwood edging, along with the crescent flower beds at the apex of the garden. The paths are wider, the garden beds fewer but much larger. Bands of decorative plants wrap around what is essentially a vegetable garden — the area devoted to veggies has grown fivefold and occupies a quarter of the space. Even though the “high garden” was the landscape jewel of the estate, Washington “wasn’t about to let something beautiful take away from something that was necessary,” said Dean Norton, Mount Vernon’s director of horticulture.
Spring visitors such as Epstein are noticing the transformation of the Upper Garden, which is now less mannered but more striking. “One of the biggest shocks is the lack of boxwood, but the openness, they’re overwhelmed by it,” said Norton, standing on one of the new 10-foot-wide gravel paths.
For a century until the 1980s, George and Martha Washington’s status garden featured old, billowing English boxwood — long assumed to date to the Washingtons’ time — and a pair of formal rose gardens. It became as increasingly untenable as the idea that young George could not tell a lie — hybrid tea roses did not appear until the 1860s, and the boxwood, once the rings were counted, turned out to be not much older. Washington died at Mount Vernon in 1799, his widow in 1802.
The garden was redesigned 26 years ago in what was thought to be a much more authentic fashion. The rose beds were removed, but the crescent beds retained and more paths added, creating additional, small flower beds. “What was missing from that restoration was physical evidence for what the garden would have looked like,” said Esther White, Mount Vernon’s director of archaeology. “We knew the roses were wrong.” The changes had to accommodate the sacred but ailing and, as it turned out, unoriginal boxwood.
Six years ago, with the boxwood well on their way out, White got permission to conduct a winter dig of the garden. In a small section near the north entrance, the excavation revealed more than expected in what had been a historically unyielding site and led to a four-month dig the next year in more clement weather.
The 15-member archaeology team hit pay dirt, discovering what turned out to be Washington’s first known use of this site, as a nursery for holding fruit trees in the 1760s. With an additional 13 months of digs between 2008 and last year, White and her team found a total of six garden iterations on the site and were able to piece together the layout for the walled, bullet-shaped pleasure garden that was first mapped in the 1780s.