Andrea Wulf, a scholar and author of how gardening has entwined itself in the nation-building of Britain, argues in Founding Gardeners that gardening and gardens held sway over those otherwise occupied with liberation from tyrants and crafting statehood.
George Washington is a striking case. Even before the fighting of the Revolutionary War finished, he was sending letters to his estate manager asking about the rhododendron blooms and advising “These clever kinds of Trees (especially the flowering ones)” should be planted in two groves by either side of Mount Vernon.
When the War ended, Washington returned to Mount Vernon and began cultivating his garden, riding throughout his acreage for hours, and seeking the perfect fertilizer (even dredging mud from the Potomac).
I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon […] than be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every Power in Europe.
John Adams wrote something similar to his wife, Abigail, after a diplomatic trip to Europe: “The tranquil walks of domestic life are now unfolding to my view: & promise a rich harvest of pleasing contemplation.” One thinks of Churchill building his own garden wall at Chartwell after World War II. Except, the gardens of Adams and Washington only grew native American plants—a patriotic initiative, Wulf argues.
Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, brought his giant mind to bear on the science of gardening, the botany.
Jefferson kept an extensive memorandum book for his expenses and a garden book in which he noted what and when his gardeners sowed and planted in Monticello—even counting the number of peas that would fill a pint.
Jefferson also stole grains of rice from Italy in hopes that they would cultivate in the New World. His personal attempts failed, but the grains he sent to Georgian farmers thrived. His negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase and the commission of Lewis and Clark were meant to expand the nation’s arable land.
The shortcoming of gardeners, and perhaps Wulf’s narrative, is that they (we) see two types of people: those who love gardening and those who’ve never tried it. I’m not sure every gardening interaction meant as much as Wulf claims in Founding Gardeners, but never mind. It mattered; the degree is secondary.
There is no shortage of great books about those who found their best selves in nature. A few selected feasts: naturalist Gerald Durrell’s childhood adventures in the garden and Hermann Hesse’s love poems to nature, gathered in The Seasons of the Soul. For a wonderful book on the history and meaning of flowers, pick up The Language of Flowers.
For a step deeper into the gardening mind—a delight—look at my compilation There Is No Collective Noun for Gardeners or stalk novelist Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden or psychoanalysts Sue Stuart-Smith on how gardening nurtures and nourishes our inner space.