Garden FAQs

Gunston Hall’s expert staff, consultants, and volunteers have answered some of the frequently asked questions about the Riverside Garden Project. (Don’t see your answer here? Ask us via email.)


Q: How long will it take to finish the riverside garden?

A: Gunston Hall’s garden restoration project is the culmination of decades of archaeology and research  and more than a year of onsite construction work. The garden will change rapidly over the next two years as we work to repopulate it with the types of plants here during the 1770s and 1780s. It is likely George Mason’s garden took decades to mature. Our garden will be no different. Visit regularly to watch the garden grow!

Q: What is a cover crop and why are you  growing it?

A: A cover crop is any crop grown for non-commercial purposes, and intended to improve the soil. Good soils take a long time to build. Plus, the long-time construction required heavy equipment which compressed our soils. To help prepare the soil for our historic plantings, the construction crew sowed a cover crop of turnips in the spring. Turnips are fast growing and outcompete weeds. They grow deep taproots which loosen up the soil. More aerated soil will benefit everything we plant, as the improved dirt will allow  roots to grow much faster than they would in compacted soil.. 

We had a lot of turnips!  Staff cooked some, using both historic and modern recipes.  And we donated hundreds to local food banks.Then we tilled into the soil the remainder.  The turnips will improve the soil quality by to adding organic matter and nutrients as they decompose. Now we have a new cover crop.  We are currently growing a black-eyed peas, sunflowers, and oats. This mixture provides a variety of benefits; each crop contributes something different. Black-eyed peas fix nitrogen into soil. Sunflowers help loosen soil while providing food for pollinators. Oats produce numerous leaves which suppress weeds. Together these cover crops will ensure our soil is ready for 2021.  

Q: How big is Gunston Hall’s garden?

A: Gunston Hall’s fence encloses roughly one acre. The combined square footage of each garden bed equals 41,145 square feet. (Just over nine tenths of an acre.) These plots are a food source in disguise as a pleasure garden.  The flowering borders that surround each bed hide the garden’s ability to produce a lot of food. Over three fourths of the garden’s total space grew fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other important natural products for the Mason family. 

Q: Who did the gardening at Gunston Hall?

A: George Mason designed and managed his garden, but it is unlikely he did any of the physical labor. Enslaved gardeners, and possibly hired or indentured servants, provided most of the work needed to keep the riverside garden beautiful. To learn more about how the members of the enslaved community at Gunston Hall shared the garden space click here.

Q: How many people could Gunston Hall’s garden feed?

A: George Mason expected his garden to adequately feed his growing family and extended family, which depending on the year counted as many as 14 people. There was also enough bounty to ensure the family’s guests had enough to eat. The garden likely provided an abundance of fruits and vegetables throughout most of the year. This food source supplemented staple grains like wheat and corn, the Masons’ livestock, local fish stock, game the Mason’s could access on their substantial property, and  imported goods from around the world. 

Q: How did the garden provide food during the winter?

A: By combining season extension, food preservation, and food storage strategies, the Masons had access to fruits and vegetables most of the year   It is likely that the Mason family and the gardeners they hired or held in bondage were well versed in stretching their food supply during the winter. A variety of crops, like cabbage, beets, or salad greens may have survived as late as October or November and longer if the gardeners protected the plants with glass bell jars. A host of crops were pickled in vinegar, while herbs, sweet potatoes, onions, and garlic were dried or cured before storing. Still others, like winter squash and potatoes, were stored in the Mason’s root cellar. These crops kept for several months before spoiling. 

Q: How did George Mason acquire such a wide variety of plants?

A: George Mason seldom traveled far from Gunston Hall, but his position as a wealthy planter connected him to other planter-gardeners in Virginia and Maryland, some of whom had traveled more extensively. Many of these individuals swapped seeds out of habit, while others were involved in emerging horticultural enterprises. Mason also had contact with the Bartram family, early pioneers in American horticulture. In the early 18th century John Bartram travelled across the colonies collecting different plants to grow in his nursery. George Mason, while attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, met members of the Bartram family at their nursery just outside of town. Perhaps Mason and John Bartram exchanged seeds.  We certainly can imagine that they had plenty to discuss in their mutual horticultural interests.