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Q&A | Horticulturist tends to history

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Q&A | Horticulturist tends to history

By Jim Weiker

The Columbus Dispatch Tuesday October 2, 2012 6:33 AM

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The kitchen garden at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, where Norton has worked for four decades

Dean Norton was looking for some spending money during high school when a friend mentioned that he mowed grass at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

Norton went to the estate, interviewed for about five minutes and left with a job.

Four decades later, he still works at the estate.

Norton started as a laborer and, after graduating with a degree in horticulture from Clemson University in South Carolina, rose to director of horticulture in 1980.

The 59-year-old resident of suburban Washington oversees a staff of 23 people responsible for the grounds, greenhouse and livestock.He will soon rank as the longest-serving director of horticulture at the estate, which is designed to look exactly as it did when Washington died in 1799.

Norton spoke in advance of his talk on Thursday at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

Q: How has the job changed in the time you’ve been at Mount Vernon?

A: Our mission hasn’t changed, but so much more information has become available. People are continuing to find books, diaries, letters back to the 18th century. That’s what’s really incredible. So much of our efforts are based on a line in one person’s diary or a paragraph in a letter from Washington — so, if we find one new letter, it changes a lot.

Q: Do you find the need to be historically accurate limiting? Would you like to plant some new hybrids instead?

A: The only limiting factor is when I’m away from Mount Vernon and someone asks, “What is this plant?” and I don’t know because it’s not from the 18th century. I don’t even know how to spell broccoli, because Washington and his staff wrote it so many different ways. But what’s happening today is everyone is going back to native species and heirloom plants, and I’m right in there — so it’s not limiting at all.

Q: What do you make of that movement?

A: I am not a purist in going native. Even George Washington was constantly looking for exotics. . . . If there’s a plant you like and looks good, for heaven’s sake, plant it.

Q: If you could ask Washington one question about the grounds, what would it be?

A: I would just like to meet the man. Since the first time I played taps as a Boy Scout at age 13, I’ve been in awe. I think I would be as speechless in front of him as I am at this question.

I just wish I could come back with a camera for five minutes and run around the estate in 1799 and take pictures. . . . What we don’t have — what I would love to see — is all the activity, the hustle and bustle: every chimney rolling, people working in the gardens, all over the grounds.

Q: You grow a lot of vegetables and fruit. What happens with that food?

A: We give the Mount Vernon restaurant first right to the produce, then take the rest to the local food bank. And we have started working with a group to take the produce into the inner city. . . . It’s exactly what Washington would have done. He wrote, “Let no one go away from this house hungry.”

Q: And what about the whiskey and brandy made at the distillery on the grounds?

A: That’s a loaded question. . . . It’s sold. We’re a licensed distributor.

Q: What will you talk about on Thursday?

A: It’s not a lecture. It’s more of a story. We go beyond Washington’s story to talk about preservation and how that’s changed over the years. . . . I share with them mistakes and failures we’ve had. People love to hear that. It might be the highlight of the talk.

Q: So what is the biggest failure you’ve had?

A: Boxwoods. I like to say that I used to be cute and had hair before boxwoods. It’s just been a nightmare to try to get them to grow. English boxwood has a blight and keeps getting wiped out.

Q: What do you consider Washington’s greatest horticultural legacy?

A: His landscape design was extraordinary — the way it transitions between formal and natural. So he was a visionary there. . . . He had just a great respect for the land. He admired the beauty of the country, as all the founders did.


Written by vaphc

October 2, 2012 at 11:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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