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BOOK REVIEW: Founding Gardeners

Reviewed by Evelyn Torre-Bueno.

Andrea Wulf's Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation is about our country’s founding fathers: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. They didn’t just sign the Declaration of Independence, but they also wrote our Constitution. And that’s not all they did—they were all hands-on experimental gardeners who also loved visiting other gardens.

Each of them recorded the life of his garden in diaries and in correspondence to each other as well as to other American and European scientists and gardeners. They reported on their successes and failures, and had many of the same gardening problems that we have today in our own gardens. They were concerned with what shape to make a garden, how to improve their soil, what seeds and trees to use. The book also reveals how their garden problems were resolved.

All four gardeners were very worried about their gardens when they had to spend the whole summer in Philadelphia writing the Constitution. They sent letters home asking how things were going, especially with the gardens. On the weekends, they visited gardens in the area, including John Bartram’s garden, which had been started around 1728 by this important self-taught horticulturist, whom the same author wrote about in The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession.

When Jefferson and Adams were in England, they went to see all the famous British gardens. The thing that surprised them the most was that imported native American trees and flowers (many probably supplied by John Bartram) were very popular.

Adams grew different crops but didn’t have flower gardens. And unlike the other founders, he didn’t have slaves because he lived in Massachusetts, outside of Boston.

Madison and Jefferson were neighbors in Virginia. Madison’s garden was in his back yard, where he put one “very nice” slave cabin. Wulf writes that this may have been Madison's attempt to set an example for his neighbors by showing greater respect towards slaves. (Madison later freed all of his slaves upon his death.)

Jefferson wrote about his disappointment in not being able to grow sugar maples in Virginia. The maple sugar they produced would have been a way to save the country from having to pay a tax to England for importing sugar.

Washington planted and tore out his entry garden at Mt. Vernon several times before he was satisfied with it. A great deal of Virginia had over-produced tobacco, which had depleted the soil, and the three Virginian gardeners (Washington, Madison, and Jefferson) continued to look for ways to enrich the soil. One of the ways in which Washington thought that he could help solve this problem was by putting a white wooden outhouse in his garden. There is no mention of how it worked, and I’m guessing that Martha Washington didn’t allow this to happen.

These men were citizen scientists who furthered the understanding of horticulture in the New World. This is a charming and well-written book that any gardener would enjoy and learn from.

I enjoyed the author’s writing style. Wulf trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art in London. She’s written five other books, including The Brother Gardeners, about six botanists of the 18th century who “created the modern garden and changed the horticultural world in the process.”

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