River Farm is a bucolic escape to the country yet located just 13 miles from Washington DC. Formerly owned by George Washington, this Alexandria, Virginia estate has been the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society (AHS) since 1973. Its mission is to be “America’s Home for Horticultural Excellence.”
Tiptoe barefoot across the lawn, walk among the flowers, meditate on a bench, or just stare at the Potomac River when you visit River Farm. Oh and don’t forget to bring your dog! Unlike most of the private gardens in Washington DC, dogs are permitted on a leash.
River Farm is open Monday through Saturday but check their website for operating hours. Parking and admission are free (except for special events), but donations are appreciated to help support the stewardship of River Farm. Budget a minimum of two hours for your visit so you can stroll through the different gardens.
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Grab the printed brochure near the parking lot to guide you on your visit. You’ll learn that George Washington purchased the 1,800-acre property for £1,210 from William Clifton in 1760 but he never lived on the land. He renamed it River Farm.
“On the premises, are a comfortable dwelling house (in which the Overlooker resides) having three rooms below, and one or two above; an old barn (now in use) and a brick one building 60 by 30 feet, and an excellent brick dairy.”George Washington
Washington gave his personal secretary Tobias Lear a lifetime lease on the property when he married his niece. Two generations of Washington resided on the property until 1850. River Farm is one of George Washington’s original “Five Farms” near Mount Vernon. It is located 16.6 miles from Mount Vernon.
Fast forward another century, AHS purchased the property through the “exceeding generosity” of the philanthropist (and gardener) Enid Haupt—with the stipulation that it was to remain public.
“When Enid A. Haupt bought River Farm and donated it to the American Horticultural Society as its headquarters, her only stipulation was that all 27 acres be open to the public.”Smithsonian Magazine
The property was “re-christened” River Farm, in honor of George Washington, “one of our nation’s first great gardeners and horticulturists.” AHS relocated its headquarters from Alexandria to River Farm in 1973. First Lady Pat Nixon and Haupt planted a ceremonial dogwood tree in the garden at the dedication.
From the second that Parker jumps out of my Suburu CrossTrek, I felt like we are leaping into a Garden of Eden. It is green everywhere!
I recall a line from Mary Oliver’s “White Flowers” poem:
“ … that green energy rose like a wave and curled over me, claiming me in its husky arms.”Mary Oliver
Large oaks and elms tower above us. We stop briefly at a lawn chair in the shade so I can read the brochure. Then we proceed to the first of a series of “garden rooms.”
I instantly want to find a bench to sit down and let my eyes roam past the array of flowers and bushes. Parker presses his head against my body as he relaxes on the bench. Plugging in my earbuds, I open my Calm app to listen to a 10-minute meditation sequence. Did I mention how relaxing I find River Farm?
Annual and Perennial Beds
I know that I will now want to visit River Farm during each of the four seasons to see how nature’s palette will change from brown to green and culminate in a summer palette boasting every shade on the color wheel—red, yellow, blue, and every derivative.
In July, the gardens are a true rainbow regardless of whether a summer storm passes through. The perennials stand in a row like soldiers, backed up again the red brick walls. The boisterous annuals stand in attention at the front.
I look through the rose arbor to see the bed of boxwoods which ends at the stone sculpture of Pan standing guard over his domain. Known as the god of the wild, shepherds, and flocks, Pan probably calls out the nymphs of the night to play at sunset at River Farm.
Next, we walk to the children’s garden which includes all the elements for fantasy play, including a miniature house, a shanty, and a wooden boat. A sturdy orange watering can waits to be grabbed by a “wee gardener” to soak the zinnias in her garden. I can just imagine the squeaks of delight as rambunctious siblings chase each other around the bushes.
I appreciate how AHS has christened the play house —“Little House on the Prairie Garden.” If I close my eyes, I can imagine Laura Ingalls scampering with her dog Jack in the cabin.
According to the AHS, the gardens were designed to stimulate children’s interest in plants and nature. The collection of mini gardens are built in child’s scale.
Although I can’t imagine feeling more relaxed after I meander through the Children’s Garden, I reach a new level of serenity in Garden Calm. Planted in perennials and shrubs, this garden room thrives in full or partial shade.
The “elder” occupant is the Osage orange tree. The tree’s age is estimated to be more than 200 years old, which means one of Washington’s relatives planted it when Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were alive.
The tree is now considered the largest Osage orange alive in the U.S., according to the AHS.
Next, I proceed to “dock” on a bench that overlooks a green sea of lawn. The meadow stretches down to the Potomac River. (Note: Visitors don’t have access to the riverbank, as there is a steep decline through brush and bramble.) The view from my bench is sublime.
Although I would have liked to linger and admire the river, the morning sun is brutal. Parker and I chose to keep moving and race down the garden steps to investigate the path below. Our “ramble” near the river is a delight.
Our excursion personified the definition of a ramble: “1) to wander around in a leisurely, aimless manner; 2) to take a course with many turns or windings, as a stream.”
Historic White House Gates
If there is any debate over whether time stops at River Farm—thanks to its sumptuous landscape design, meandering meadow, and historic structures—then simply walk through the Historic White House gates. They were originally installed during the reconstruction of the White House after the War of 1812. President James Monroe commissioned the gates from a New York forge.
For nearly 120 years, 28 U.S. presidents passed through the gates, which were mounted on neo-classical stone piers, for ceremonial entry and exit from the White House. The gates were removed in 1937 and moved to a private estate on the Potomac River.
The AHS discovered them in storage after acquiring the property in 1973. After renovation, the green gates were reinstalled.
Rock on the Porch
Parker and I ended our visit on the porch which overlooks the meadows. I claimed a rocker so I could cool off in the shade. Parker gratefully sunk onto the floor to rest.
I marveled how time in nature can revive you. Swept away by the glorious gardens and proud old trees, I luxuriated in my sense of well-being and calm. Next time I will bring my well-worn copy of Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems to read at River Farm.
I remember the words of Marcus Tullius Cicero: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”