May 10, 2022

The Amateur Gardener

Turn my mind to the wholesome business of gardening

Spring is here and though we’ll still see some chilly nights, our thoughts turn to gardening.

This was certainly true for George Marshall, who loved gardening. The Marshalls had lovely flowers at their home in Leesburg, but it was the vegetable garden that brought Marshall joy.

The Marshalls with their large bed of zinnias.

Part of Marshall’s 1949 seed order

For Marshall, ordering seeds was serious business. He once kept an appointment waiting while he finished his seed order. In 1949, Marshall was out of town, and sent his seed list to his secretary Sally Chamberlain, asking for her help in making the order. Chamberlain replied, “Enclosed is a copy of the seed order which was sent to the Burpee Company with a check for $13.” Marshall ordered the “Big Boy” tomato seeds in this their inaugural year; the hybrid is still available today.

Marshall was fond of the Burpee seeds. On receiving a complimentary package of zinnia seeds in March 1942, Marshall wrote to company president David Burpee about a possible visit to the Marshall home. He shared a fond wish with Burpee that “The business of seeds and flowers tantalizes me because I have been an amateur gardener, both flower and vegetable, since a boy of ten.  There is nothing I would so much prefer to do this spring as to turn my mind to the wholesome business of gardening rather than the terrible problems and tragedies of war.”

Visitors frequently found themselves working in the garden. Madam Chiang Kai-shek helped plant several hundred tulip bulbs long a flowerbed border when she was staying with the Marshalls.

Madame Chiang kai-Shek and Katherine on the steps of their home in Leesburg, VA.

Katherine’s grandson Tupper worked in the rose garden when he visited, hoeing the weeds to keep the garden nice.

Katherine’s grandson Tupper hoeing in her rose garden.

Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold came to help in the garden one day. He changed out of his uniform when he arrived, and into a pair of white pants and a white shirt. Katherine later found him “knee-deep in the compost pile, with his clothes ‘a sight to behold.’”

Marshall working on the compost pile.

To speak with Marshall during the growing season, you generally headed out to the garden.

When Gen. Walter Bedell Smith returned from England with a report, he found Marshall in his garden, picking corn in the rain. Not pleased that his freshly starched uniform was getting drenched, he asked, “General, do I have to stand out here to make my report?” to which Marshall replied, “No, Smith. Turn over that bucket there and sit down.”

Marshall trimming the daffodil greens.

While Secretary of State, Marshall was told that imitating a Native American planting technique of burying fish heads as he planted would fertilize the new growth. One Friday, he received delivery of fish heads that he placed in the trunk of his car, completely forgetting that he was headed out of town, not home that afternoon. His biographer Dr. Forrest Pogue reported that “by Monday there was considerable dismay among those parking in the vicinity of his car.”

He didn’t have such good luck with the fish heads, as he explained in a letter to his good friend Rose Page Wilson. “Your gardening difficulties are nothing compared to mine. I followed the old Indian custom of burying fish heads under the corn and every cat in Leesburg descended on me one weekend and practically dug up the foundations of the house.”

Marshall at his most content — in his vegetable garden.

We’ll be planting seeds for our garden this weekend, but I think we’ll skip the fish heads!

Before becoming director of library and archives at the George C. Marshall Foundation, Melissa was an academic librarian specializing in history. She and her husband, John, have three grown children, and live in Rockbridge County with three large rescue dogs. Melissa is known as the happiest librarian in the world! Keep up with her @MelissasLibrary.