By Sara Ann Grant ’17 —— Photography by Ashley Jones
Dean Norton ’77 has spent more than half a century in the gardens of George Washington’s Mount Vernon
The late-May evening was settling in when we finally reached Mount Vernon.
It was almost 6 o’clock, and we had been on the road since 7 that morning, driving from Clemson though North Carolina and into the heart of Virginia for a long nine hours. Our four-person team was on a mission to get photography and videography of Dean Norton, Clemson alumnus and director of horticulture and livestock at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
Norton has worked at Mount Vernon for more than 50 years — longer than Washington himself lived on the estate — and, during his tenure, has seen its gardens evolve into the thriving historic grounds of today, experienced by hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
I had interacted with Norton on the phone and via email enough to expect a warm and humor-loving character.
Still, none of us were prepared for the day and a half ahead.
In the gardens
When we reached the entrance to the estate, Norton was there waiting, parked on the curb in an official Mount Vernon golf cart. He waved us to follow and took off down a side road and into a gated staff parking lot. His bright orange, Tiger-Paw-emblazoned PFG shirt worked well as a guiding light.
The goal of the evening was to scout some shots for the following day, so after exchanging greetings, we piled into Norton’s cart, and he sped away from the gravel lot before turning down a wooded path that, he explained, ran parallel to the area’s original road — the road that guests of George Washington would have taken to reach the estate.
“This is how the house would appear to travelers as they approached,” Norton said as we crested a grassy hill. Slowly, the cupola and red-shingled roof of Washington’s mansion rose into view.
A sprawling lawn, also known as the bowling green, stretches in front of the house, which is flanked by the kitchen and servants’ hall and surrounded by gardens — Norton’s domain.
Combined, the four gardens make up about 7 acres and consist of the lower garden, the upper garden, the botanical garden, and the fruit garden and nursery.
The lower garden, or kitchen garden, is full of fruits and vegetables for the table; this garden was overseen by Washington’s wife, Martha. The upper garden, or pleasure garden, was especially for guests to enjoy and is filled with flowers surrounded by boxwood-edged gravel paths. The botanical garden was a personal favorite of Washington’s, housing plant species either collected by Washington or gifted by his friends and colleagues. The 4-acre fruit garden and nursery contain orchards of fruit trees and other plants that require more space to grow.
“In every garden, there were always vegetables,” Norton says. “They were still the most important plant grown here at Mount Vernon because they needed vegetables as a healthy food source.”
In the 18th century, the gardens were tended by indentured servants and enslaved gardeners. Washington also hired gardeners from all over Europe, the last of whom was William Spence from Scotland.
“Washington died in 1799, so our goal through research and archaeological investigation is to represent the gardens to that date,” Norton says. “All plants on the estate must have a cultivation date prior to 1799.”
Under Norton’s guidance, all historic garden enclosures (except the kitchen garden, which has been deemed historic for its colonial revival characteristics) have been researched and restored to reflect Washington’s time — with the upper garden’s restoration a crowning achievement.
Clemson This, Clemson That
Norton grew up in the shadow of Mount Vernon, just 5 miles down the road. As a teenager, he took a summer job on the Mount Vernon grounds crew for $1.45 an hour. Thus began his 54 years (and counting) working at the estate.
“Two weeks later, I got a raise to $1.67, and I thought, ‘I’m going to retire early!’” Norton says.
The summer before Norton was to apply to colleges, a Clemson student joined the seasonal grounds crew. Norton says it seemed like all he could talk about was Clemson:
“Clemson this, Clemson that. He just couldn’t say enough about the place. His enthusiasm was totally captivating.”
Determined to see Clemson for himself, Norton soon headed South for a summer vacation — in a Triumph Spitfire, no less — with a stop at the University on his schedule. And like many before him, Norton fell in love with Clemson as soon as he set foot on campus. He applied to the horticulture program and was accepted.
“And back in those days, they took people like me,” Norton laughs. “I didn’t have the greatest SATs or anything else.”
At Clemson, Norton quickly learned that horticulture involves much more than “counting trees,” as he says, and he had to adjust to the curriculum workload, including biology, genetics and chemistry. But he didn’t let challenges in the classroom keep him from his favorite part of the student experience: Tiger Band.
“My parents didn’t want me to join the band because they weren’t sure I could handle it with the student workload,” Norton remembers. “The band would line up right outside my window at Norris Hall and march down to the stadium to practice for game day. It was tearing me up.”
Norton says he took a trip to his student mailbox after one such occasion, dejected and feeling left out. An orange flyer on the floor stood in his path, which he kicked in frustration. The flyer flew up at him, and he caught it, surprised. When he flipped it over, it read, “Join Tiger Band.”
“I ended up in the band room in a matter of five minutes,” Norton says. “I said, ‘I want to join the band. I don’t care what I do. I’ll carry a flag; I’ll be the water boy.’
“Fortunately, I was a pretty good trumpet player.”
After graduating from Clemson in 1977, Norton returned to Mount Vernon in 1978 as the estate’s boxwood specialist. This was when the real work began.
“I killed 3,000 boxwoods in two and a half months.”
Norton’s tenure as boxwood specialist got off to a rocky start. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was planning a visit to the estate, and Norton wanted to impress them.
The association was initially founded in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina, who galvanized a group of women to collectively purchase Mount Vernon from the Washington family and take on its preservation. At the time, the estate was falling into ruin. Mount Vernon has been managed by the ladies ever since.
In anticipation of their arrival, Norton decided to replace all of the declining boxwood that made up the upper garden’s two parterres, formal plantings of boxwood laid out in a particular pattern. Boxwood is a temperamental evergreen shrub primarily used as an edging and can be found in many of the nation’s historic properties. Norton took extreme care (too much care) when planting the new boxwood, and they quickly perished due to a lack of air to the roots.
“I dug a trench and put all kinds of soil additives that were supposed to be good for plants; unfortunately, I basically created a well,” Norton says. “And they all died from having no air whatsoever. People say you learn from your experiences and especially from your failures. That was a big one.”
Despite the inauspicious start, Norton soon made a name for himself as a boxwood specialist. His expertise was in high demand because, according to Norton, those well-versed in the shrub were few and far between.
“Many of my consultations started with boxwood,” he says. “Everyone was so scared to touch them. I wasn’t. I mean, I had no fear at that point.”
In 1980, Norton was named Mount Vernon’s head horticulturist, and he started to tackle more significant changes to the gardens, backed by historical research.
Living and Breathing
It was almost time to wrap up the long first day.
The Clemson World team — which, aside from me, consisted of Clemson’s director of photography Ashley Jones, director of video services Eric Rodgers and videographer Aaron Johnson — was packing up when Norton invited us to the wharf for a late dinner. The wharf, he explained, was where goods would arrive by boat on the Potomac River for the Washington family.
When we arrived at the wharf’s covered dock, a table wrapped in brown paper and set with two candle-lit lanterns awaited us. Norton’s wife, Susanne Schrage-Norton, soon arrived with bags of takeout in hand, which were quickly unpacked. Peruvian chicken with yuca fries and side salads.
To us, weary and hungry from travel, the meal was a feast. And the hospitality was as unexpected as it was appreciated. The Nortons explained that the Peruvian restaurant was a family favorite, and we were allowed to cast our vote in the great debate of which is the superior dipping sauce.
For the Nortons, this was a typical summer night. Mount Vernon has always been an extension of their lives, a place for fishing in the Potomac and wandering the grounds after hours. And it was where Dean and Susanne first met.
Like Norton, Susanne Schrage grew up near Mount Vernon in the Alexandria, Virginia, area. She says she almost went to Clemson as well, dubbing it her first choice before ultimately deciding it was too far from home. Soon after graduating from Virginia Tech in horticulture, she joined the gardening team at Mount Vernon. And then she met Norton.
“I was not looking for a date!” Schrage-Norton laughs, remembering those early days. “But I knew pretty quick that he was really special.”
Norton echoes his wife: “She was too cute to let go.”
Naturally, Norton asked his wife to marry him in the historic gardeners’ seed house built into one corner of the kitchen garden. Years earlier, a young man had left his mark on its inner wall: “Dean Norton” followed by a Tiger Paw. It was the perfect spot for a proposal.
Today, the Nortons have four grown daughters — Penelope, Tallulah, Zipporah and Isabelle — who all grew up on the grounds of Mount Vernon, following their father down the rows of cabbages and fruit trees.
“There was nothing more special than walking through the gardens and hearing a little voice around the corner say, ‘Hey, Dad!’” Norton says. “Really, really special.”
“Mount Vernon is our life,” adds Schrage-Norton, who no longer works at the estate but visits as often as ever. “It always has been. Dean is turning 70 in May, and everybody asks when he’s retiring. I’m like, ‘He can’t retire. I don’t know what he would do!’
“It’s his living and breathing.”
Restoring the Upper Garden
The first year Dean and Susanne Norton were married, they dove into researching the upper garden, suspecting that certain characteristics, like its rose beds, weren’t as historically accurate as they seemed.
“There were indications, at that time, that the upper garden was just a pleasure garden,” Schrage-Norton says, “so it was just gobs of flowers. Flowers everywhere. But when you went through [Washington’s] writings and his manager’s reports, there kept being mention of vegetables, too. There was this feeling that something was amiss in the way it was being represented.”
Together, with the blessing of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, they pored over Washington’s letters and Mount Vernon visitors’ accounts. They visited rare book rooms, which Norton says were usually in the basements of historical homes.
“They gave you a number two pencil and a piece of paper for copying,” Norton remembers. “Nothing was digitized, so if you came away after a whole day of researching with a line or two that seemed important, that was a big day.”
In years of further research, Norton teamed up with Mount Vernon’s archaeologists to excavate areas of the garden, where they identified five different periods of garden configuration from the late 1760s through 2005.
“Specialized studies were carried out that looked at planting evidence and phytolith studies, which are plant-produced micro silica bodies left in soil long after the plants are gone,” says Mount Vernon’s director of preservation Thomas Reinhart. “All three disciplines of horticulture, archaeology and architectural history need to collaborate in order to get a holistic concept of life here in the 18th century — the people who worked, built, dug, planted and lived on the landscape.
“While the Washingtons directed the work here, they did not carry it out; the more than 300 enslaved people of Mount Vernon did,” Reinhart continues. “By studying the landscape through the lens of horticulture, we learn more about them.”
Today, thanks to the efforts of Norton, Reinhart and their teams, the upper garden is a much better representation of its 18th-century self: a bullet-shaped garden anchored by a brick greenhouse and complete with borders of flowers and boxwood, interior vegetable plantings, and two formal parterres.
Full of Surprises
“There are very few horticulturists who have a trebuchet,” Norton said as he led our crew to a grassy area off the main grounds.
Norton had bought the deteriorating trebuchet from a neighbor and restored it, deciding Mount Vernon was the perfect place for the medieval catapult to live. And we were about to get a demonstration, with rotten fruit from the gardens as ammunition.
Norton whacked at the sides of a pineapple and made it flat. This was important to the function of the trebuchet, he explained. We watched, in awe, as a pineapple was launched overhead and into a nearby field. Norton soon waved us onward, unfazed by our slack jaws.
The horticulturist, it seemed, was a master of surprise.
“Dean brings a unique mix of dry wit and slapstick humor to every encounter,” says Reinhart, who knows from experience. “You never know when he will turn up in a crazy suit or pull out his trademark bugle!”
Norton got a surprise himself on April 14 of this year when he was appointed to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House by President Biden. He joins the ranks of distinguished experts in preservation, architecture and decorative arts from across the nation. The committee is charged with establishing policies for the White House’s historic rooms, collections and other properties, including the gardens and extended grounds.
As a member of the committee, Norton will consider issues relating to the White House grounds and gardens, providing expertise on caring for historic trees and plants as well as investigating the need for further horticultural research on the landscape.
The appointment comes full circle for Norton, who has spent his entire career watching over the gardens of the nation’s first president: “To now support the preservation of the home of our current president is pretty terrific. It is the ultimate and continuous alpha and omega situation.”
Norton will bring his decades of horticultural experience to the committee, as well as his extensive knowledge of 18th-century gardens — knowledge that he also shares nationally and internationally as a traveling lecturer and consultant. Over the years, he has been sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, American Horticultural Society, U.S. Botanic Garden, Maryland Historical Society and Colonial Williamsburg. He also serves on Clemson’s Historic Properties Alumni Advisory Committee.
“Dean’s long tenure at Mount Vernon means he is a direct connection to decades of institutional information about the projects and people of this site,” Reinhart says, “and his depth of knowledge about the Washington era is impressive.”
Reinhart adds, “Dean Norton is a Mount Vernon original.”
It was the final few minutes of our assignment, and the evening light was fading. We had spent the day following Norton around in the gardens, where he encouraged us to pick and eat the abundant raspberries, currants and sugar peas.
“A bit of smoke rising up from a building, the smell of freshly turned soil filled with compost, animals in yoke walking toward you,” Norton mused, surveying Mount Vernon as we headed back toward the staff parking lot. The crunch of gravel sounded under the golf cart’s wheels.
“It doesn’t take much to bring something back to life,” he said, “to evoke thoughts of the past.”
Toward the end of his life, Washington wrote to his land manager about his Scottish gardener, William Spence: “In short I never had a hired servant that pleased me better, and what adds to my satisfaction is that he is content himself, having declared that he never was happyer [sic] in his life…”
Through his life’s work — his many years of service to Mount Vernon and his field of study — Norton says the tradition continues. He has never been happier.