Virtual Tour of the Grounds of James Monroe's Highland

James Monroe's Highland

Plantations

Plantations were large money-making enterprises, and ideally produced most goods that were needed on site as well as a surplus of crops and other products for sale. Initially, Monroe found that only a small portion of Highland was cultivated. In 1798, however, he estimated that the plantation could produce 20,000 pounds of tobacco.

To increase production, he –like his friend and neighbor Thomas Jefferson—experimented with a variety of agricultural techniques. Monroe successfully planted cover crops, and plowed plaster of paris, or gypsum, into the soil, techniques of boosting soil productivity. Eventually Monroe replaced tobacco with grain crops, which were less draining on the soil.

The plantation had both a gristmill and a sawmill, so had the capacity to grind the plantation’s corn and wheat, and process timber from Highland’s 2,000 wooded acres. The blacksmith who shod horses and hammered ironware was likely an enslaved man who lived on the plantation.

Other enslaved workers were kept busy spinning and weaving wool and flax, one of the service yard’s most important activities. Since foreign cloth was extremely costly, Monroe imported Spanish Merino sheep to Highland, where he cross-bred them with his domestic animals.

Gardens

Today Highland has ornamental and utilitarian gardens, as did Monroe’s property in the early 1800s. As a cultured lady, Elizabeth Monroe required fresh and dried flowers for her bouquets.

Her household also required numerous herbs—herbs for cooking, herbs for scenting the linens and repelling moths, and herbs for their medicinal properties, and still other plants for dyeing fabrics. She must have found, as Highland gardeners find today, that some plants thrive in the rich red Virginia earth, while others struggle and eventually die.

Today’s vegetable garden, just outside the kitchen yard, yields cabbage, beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, and numerous kinds of greens. Many of these were also grown on plantations in the Virginia Piedmont.

On the Grounds

The estate’s mature Boxwood Gardens, planted over a century ago, are graced by a magnificent white oak. Still standing from Monroe’s day, this majestic “witness tree” is twenty feet in circumference. The formal landscape provides a number of peaceful garden settings for museum and private social events.

Many of the deciduous trees around the house and formal gardens are white ash trees. These regal residents line the estate’s scenic entranceway, and stretch across the northwest lawn toward a ridge along Carter’s Mountain and Highland’s boundary.

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