The River Farm property was established in 1653-54 by Giles Brent and his wife, a princess of the Piscataway tribe, who received a grant of 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) named Piscataway Neck. In 1739 the land was passed from George Brent to brother-in-law, William Clifton who renamed the property Clifton's Neck. In 1757 Clifton completed the brick house that now serves as AHS headquarters. Following financial difficulties, Clifton sold the land to neighbor George Washington, who obtained the property for £1,210 through a bankruptcy sale in 1760. Washington changed the name of Clifton's Neck to River Farm and leased the property to tenant farmers. River Farm was passed down through two immediate generations of Washingtons and later sold with 652 arces of Washington's original land to the Snowden brothers of New Jersey. The property was home to numerous owners including Malcolm Matheson, who bought the property in 1919. Matheson placed the property on the market in 1971 and received an offer from the Soviet Embassy who planned to use the land as a retreat or dacha for its staff. The public opposed this purchase which resulted in the AHS acquisition of the property.
Detailed history can be found on the AHS website.
Acquisition by AHS
After Matheson took his land off the market to avoid the Soviet purchase, Enid Annenberg Haupt, philanthropist, gardener, and member of the Board of Directors of the American Horticultural Society took interest in the property. Haupt donated the purchasing funds needed for the property to AHS in the early 1970s. In 1973, AHS relocated its headquarters from the city of Alexandria to nearby River Farm. The property was renamed River Farm in honor of President George Washington, one of the many land owners.
Washington at River Farm
Today's smaller River Farm is located on the northernmost division of Washington's original property. River Farm features the estate house (enlarged and remodeled) with naturalistic and formal garden areas. It still preserves several historical associations with Washington. Its Kentucky coffeetrees are descendants of those first introduced to Virginia upon Washington's return from surveys in the Ohio River Valley. The estate's oldest tree is a large Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera), believed to be the largest in the United States. It was probably a gift from Thomas Jefferson to the Washington family, and grown from seedlings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-06.
In 2004, River Farm was designated a Horticultural Landmark by the American Society for Horticultural Science. This recognition was due to the ability to retain its historic character while at the same time showcasing the best and most environmentally responsible gardening practices. The Horticultural Landmark features renowned vistas stretching down to the Potomac River as well as its artful blend of naturalistic and formal gardens that offer year-round delight to visitors of all ages. In addition, there are extensive and creative play areas for children, demonstration gardens for both edible and ornamental plants, a four-acre meadow, and scenic resting places for picnickers, artists, and romantics. Other highlights include two small buildings with planted “living” roofs, the second largest Osage orange tree in the nation, an orchard, a grove of rare franklinia trees, and frequent sightings of bald eagles, bluebirds, foxes, and other wildlife.
River Farm is located at 7931 East Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, Virginia. River Farm's gardens are open to the public from April-September, during the enjoyable outdoor weather of spring and summer. River Farm's hours are weekdays 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., as well as Saturday, 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., excluding national holidays.
The farm's gardens include:
- André Bluemel Meadow (4 acres/1.6 ha) - naturalistic area with native grasses and wildflowers. Two large black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) probably date to George Washington's ownership.
- Children’s Garden - more than a dozen small gardens for children.
- Estate House plantings - native shrubs and trees, including Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii), and Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), as well as a hedge of English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) with specimens nearly 100 years old.
- Garden Calm - shrubs, trees, and perennials for shade, with the large Osage-orange.
- George Harding Memorial Azalea Garden - hundreds of azalea species, varieties, and cultivars, plus small ornamental trees including river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’), dogwoods (Cornus sp.), dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and dove trees (Davidia involucrata).
- Perennial Border - plants selected for resistance to diseases and pests.
- White House Gates - first installed at the White House in 1819, in the reconstruction after the War of 1812, and used for more than 120 years at the White House's northeast entrance.
- Wildlife Garden - a small pond with frogs, goldfish, and turtles, surrounded by blueberry and northern bayberry shrubs, grasses, junipers, and holly.