Image of Mount Vernon gardensIf you were to step 200 years back in time and stroll through the grounds of Mount Vernon estate, you would see a sweeping lawn bordered by serpentine walks, walled gardens and the hot Virginia sun rising over the north and south groves.

Or at least according to George Washington.

Today, the most authentic records we have of the president’s gardens were written by Washington himself, and it’s clear that times — and standard English — have changed since the 1700s.

In order to understand exactly what Washington’s Mount Vernon originally looked like, horticulture student Alexa McCullen is working to decode the language he used to describe his gardens.

Instead of searching for soil samples, she’s digging through Washington’s handwritten letters to groundskeepers, his diaries and his guests’ travel journals.

“There are areas of landscape that Washington calls groves, ovals, serpentine paths — we want to go about restoring them, but his descriptions are very vague,” Alexa said. “We have to ask, ‘what does Washington mean by the word oval? What type of plants did he use? Are they round? Are they close together?’”

Alexa’s inquiry was inspired by Mount Vernon’s 10-15 year project aimed at recreating landscape features as they would have been during Washington’s lifetime.

But before Alexa started her search through Washington’s words, she was busy searching for the perfect departmental honors research topic. Because of her interest in public gardens, she was encouraged to contact Dean Norton, the director of gardens at Mount Vernon and proud Clemson alum, notorious for keeping a Tiger Rag in his suit coat pocket.

Alexa was thrilled about the opportunity to research one of the nation’s most iconic landscapes, so she took a trip to meet Dean in person at Mount Vernon’s first annual garden symposium. After orange-tinted introductions and an enthusiastic conversation about the restoration project, the deal was sealed — Alexa had a new honors research topic, Dean had the extra help he needed, and the world would soon have Washington’s authentic experience.

Alexa McCullen, left, and Clemson alum Dean Norton are working together to understand what George Washington's Mount Vernon gardens orginally looked like

Alexa McCullen, left, and Clemson alum Dean Norton are working together to understand what George Washington’s Mount Vernon gardens originally looked like.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

Despite an ambitious start, the task hasn’t been easy. After sifting through all of Washington’s written materials, Alexa expanded her search to books from the Clemson library.

“I find modern research articles and use the authors’ citations to find additional resources,” she said. “Going back and forth between modern literature and primary sources has made things progressively harder.”

But Alexa hasn’t given up, and her dedication to the project hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Alexa was recently offered a six-week summer internship at Mount Vernon where she will continue her project on-site. Not only will she be able to survey the landscape firsthand, she will also work side-by-side with her teammate, Dean.

“Alexa is a rock star,” Dean said. “This internship experience will help her truly understand what it takes to preserve and maintain a historical site. I can see her in the same role that I am in now in the not-so-distant future.”

Although it will take many years of landscape archeology before she will see the results of her research, Alexa shares his excitement.

“I’m more than ready to get the hands-on experience. It will be so different than staring at a computer screen or trying to find a single word in a book this big,” she laughed, holding her hands wide.

But on a deeper level, perhaps there’s something inherently exhilarating about standing on the ground where Washington once stood.

“I work for a man, George Washington, who was so much more than the leader of an army or the president of a nation,” Dean said. “Through my research, relating to his landscape, farming and gardens, I have met a George Washington that few people know.”

For Alexa, it’s this appeal that drives her research and feeds her passion for education.

“More than historical dates or events, I love the stories,” Alexa said. “With this historical focus, I can get visitors to learn about and care about the landscape, even if that’s not what they came for. There’s something about nature that everybody can connect to.”