This historic property was purchased by George Washington in 1760. He did not live there but farmed on the land, growing barley and wheat and keeping sheep. Later, it was sold to the Snowden family and was the largest dairy farm in the area during the Civil War. Ultimately it was purchased for AHS in 1973 for $825,000 from the Matheson family with a $1 million gift from Enid Haupt. The property has some modern fame being part of 2 different movies – Terms of Engagement with Samuel L Jackson and No Way Out with Kevin Costner.
After some morning refreshments we started the tour by viewing the four acre meadow. The meadow is just below the Ha-Ha wall that was on the original property, and the view looks out over the Potomac River. It is divided into four quadrants and all the plants were donated by Kurt Bluemel. They have had two controlled burns since it was first installed, usually sometime between January and March. This adds nutrients back into the soil. It is done using canisters of kerosene and diesel. The kerosene starts the fire quickly and the diesel slows it down. They were not able to burn the meadow this year because it was too wet early in the year. By the time it was dry enough, the plants had gotten a start growing so the field burning could not be done.
There are numerous trees along the river including three Yellowwoods. There are two large black walnut trees believed to date from the time that George Washington owned the property. The trees provide some erosion control and the Department of Natural Resources does not allow them to be cut down unless they are a hazard, even though they do block the view somewhat.
The group then walked to the Green Garage passing the beautiful perennial flower beds. On the way we passed a number of Kentucky Coffee trees believed to have been planted by George Washington. These were apparently his favorite tree but are plagued by mites and must be injected with miticide each year. There was a colorful Rhus aromatica ‘Tiger Eyes’. Although known as an aggressive spreader, it did not seem to be causing any issues. The property has a small grove of the rare Franklinia alatamaha tree. The grove has unfortunately had numerous injuries with some recent storms.
Next we moved into the Children’s Garden. An unusually large Vitex or Chaste tree was blooming with lovely purple blossoms. It is believed to be 80 years old and has been pollarded over many years, so despite the large trunk it has been kept to a petite size. The garden had a grove of banana trees and other plants and structures for the kids to play on. It seemed quite popular with a birthday party that was happening while we were there.
From there we moved into the Garden Calm, a lovely shady spot with a bubbler fountain made from a mill stone. There was a large female Gingko tree and a huge Osage orange tree that has been a National Champion tree. It is apparently in yearly competition with another tree, an Osage orange growing at Red Hill, Patrick Henry’s home in Brookneal, Virginia. That tree is currently the Nation Champion. The Ginkgo fruits are fortunately picked up each year by an Asian woman who is knowledgeable in how to prepare them in an edible way.
The next part of the tour took us to see the large gates that had once been installed at the White House as part of the 1819 reconstruction project to repair damage from the War of 1812. They stood at the northeast entrance to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue for nearly 120 years. They had been removed in 1937 and discarded. Mr. Matheson later found them in a junk pile. The gates were restored in February 2005 and even the original color was researched and applied. They were loaned to the Philadelphia Flower show that year and then installed on the property, an event which required 16 football players to lift them into place.
With a quick stop at the garden shop Jane supplied everyone with The American Gardener magazine and loads of additional information as well as membership forms. Membership to AHS assists them with funding for all the programs and keeping up the property. It also allows reciprocal visits to a wealth of other gardens around the country. All in all it was an amazing morning with a full breadth of history and horticulture!