Author lectures on gardens of founding fathers

Andrea Wulf, author of
Andrea Wulf, author of “Founding Gardeners,” spoke to a group at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich Tuesday night about the book and, said the men Americans know as the Founding Fathers were farmers and gardeners before that.Jennifer Turiano / Hearst CT Media

GREENWICH — America’s first president made plans to redesign his garden at Mount Vernon on an evening when his soldiers were preparing for the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.

Andrea Wulf, author of “Founding Gardeners” discovered that the garden was foremost on George Washington’s mind that night — not worrying about the upcoming Battle of New York — when he sat down in his quarters to write his estate manager.

“Very few had seen war ships as big as those coming up the Hudson River,” Wulf said during her lecture this week at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich to an intimate crowd.

“On the eve of the Battle of New York,” she said, “ He thinks about mountain laurel... eastern redbud... He is asking for native plants, magnolia virginiana and flowering dogwood — an all-American ornamental garden — almost his horticultural declaration of independence.

“He seems to believe no English trees are to be on U.S. soil,” said Wulf.

Wulf spoke to the garden group for the second time — after discussing another book, “The Invention of Nature” last year. There are many other upcoming events at GEC Greenwich.

In her lecture Tuesday,Wulf, who also wrote “Chasing Venus,” “The Brother Gardeners” and ‘The Other Eden,”spoke about Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison as well. She referred to them not only as the Founding Fathers, but as farmers and gardeners.

At the time Washington made the decision for his garden, the perspective of many Americans was: The more European plants in a garden, the more impressive.

The leader had turned this upside down.

“He knows his house is going to be the most visited house in the nation,” said Wulf, “as the hero of (American independence). People had been trying to recreate the Old World. This is a radical departure... a deliberate choice.”

Washington even changed the orientation of Mount Vernon house so that instead of facing east, toward Europe and Britain, Wulf said, it was facing west to the future of America.

Attendees said they were interested in her work on both gardening and American history.

“Aside from what she talked about here,” said Bill Weld, of Bedford, N.Y., “she’s a real researcher. One-third of the book is notes.”

“We are very interested in the American Revolution as well,” said Carol Weld. “It’s (Bill’s) ancestry.”

One guest, Nedra Gillette, came from Larchmont, N.Y. and is part of a master gardener group at the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford, Conn. She said she is on her fourth Wulf book.

“Our book club (at the Arboretum) has become fascinated with Andrea’s books,” said Gillette, “with the relationship between gardening and social issues and contemporary dilemmas.

“I’m very happy to be able to be here tonight,” she said.

Wulf said that the founding gardeners’ work with the land reflected their politics and vice-versa, and that gardening and farming is still political in the United States today.

“Most gardeners I meet in America today,” said Wulf after the lecture, “say gardening is not a political act anymore... But urban farms, the farm-to-table movement — if you have a compost pile you don’t need fertilizers or chemicals — you are making a political statement. I do think gardening is still political, we are just not as aware of it.”

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