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Plant like a president

Seeds for this blacked-eyed Susan plant can be purchased online from
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate. (Courtesy Monticello)
Founding fathers knew their flowers, still inspire gardeners

Our founding fathers were gardeners. Beautifying our outdoor surroundings is part of our American DNA.

No wonder on Presidents' Day, our thoughts turn to spring. We want to plant stuff!

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid plantsmen. They collected unusual varieties and shared their enthusiasm with influential friends. Their private estates shaped landscape tastes for a new country.

Thankfully, their Virginia homes and gardens have been preserved. Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello are slices of living history, impressing visitors for more than 200 years.

Washington, whose 287th birthday is Feb. 22, is credited with bringing a more naturalistic look to American landscapes. He used native trees such as Southern magnolias to fill out his gardens and created a blooming oasis of beauty. In addition, he collected novel plants and experimented with growing different fruits and vegetables.

Well-traveled, Jefferson was constantly on the lookout for the next great plant. To test at Monticello, he imported seed and cuttings from around the world; according to his records, Jefferson grew 330 varieties of 89 vegetables and herbs plus 170 varieties of fruit. That doesn’t count his flower collection. He said, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

A packet of black-eyed Susan seed from Monticello made me a Jefferson fan. I got them on a Virginia visit while in high school and planted them back home in California. Effortlessly, they reseeded and bloomed reliably for decades. I loved the idea of a bouquet with flowers the founding fathers enjoyed. Those yellow-orange coneflowers connected me in California with those colonists. It was a little bit of American history in my own yard.

Mount Vernon still has extensive flower, fruit and vegetable gardens. This
photo is
from April 2015. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)
Seed from Monticello and Mount Vernon can be purchased online. Mount Vernon’s spring seed catalog is coming soon (at ), but the Monticello seed selection is well stocked and ready for orders (at ). Dozens of heirloom varieties are available including many rarities. A packet of black-eyed Susans ( Rudbeckia hirta ) is $3.95, with 40 seeds harvested from Monticello gardens. Seed samplers offer assortments of flowers and vegetables with themes such as “Birds, Bees and Butterflies” or “Monticello Herbs.”

With such heirloom seeds, American history will grow on you.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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