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American President Was Revolutionary Gardener

Thomas Jefferson's horticultural legacy is on view at his home, Monticello

Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden at his home of Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden at his home of Monticello.

Multimedia

Rosanne Skirble

America's third president Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents.

He wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was a skilled architect, scientist, landscape designer, farmer and life-long gardener.

As a young man, Jefferson inherited his family's 2,000 hectare plantation on Monticello Mountain near Charlottesville, Virginia where he designed the neo-classical house and flower gardens and planted grain fields, fruit orchards and vineyards.

Jefferson's garden

Centuries ago, Jefferson's slaves dug a 300 meter long cut into the red clay hillside for a terraced vegetable garden, which is where Peter Hatch makes his daily rounds today.

Hatch is the director of gardens and grounds at Monticello and says the garden is laid out as Jefferson had planned it, in 24 squares - or beds - of herbs and vegetables.

"This was a laboratory for Thomas Jefferson, an Ellis Island of new and unusual plants that came literally from around the world. Jefferson documented the planting of 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit in this garden."

Jefferson exchanged seeds from people in the U.S states and in foreign countries, where he traveled as secretary of state before he was president. Hatch says many of those seeds blossomed in Jefferson's Virginia home garden. "He wrote that the greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture."

According to Hatch, the food grown in Jefferson's garden inspired a revolutionary cuisine with new crops like lima beans from the American Indians and tomatoes and potatoes, European discoveries from Central and South America.

Meticulous records

Jefferson believed that organizing the world according to scientific methods led to human progress and happiness.

He writes about his horticultural ups and downs in meticulous detail in his Garden Book, a diary he kept from 1766 to 1824. Hatch says unlike few gardeners, Jefferson was not afraid to admit failure. "On one page in 1809 the word failed is written down 19 times. He had a holistic view, as we say today, of the gardening process. It is the failure of one thing that is repaired by the success of another."

When Hatch came to Monticello 30 years ago, about a third of the terraced vegetable garden was a parking lot. Restoration was based on archeological and documentary evidence. While Hatch is faithful to Jefferson's plan, few species remain from Jefferson's day. Hatch says the challenge is to add to the collection.

"Some things we found were Jefferson's plants, like tennis ball lettuce and tree onions, but other things elude us. So planting is done in an interpretative way to illustrate Jefferson's horticulture views."

Experiment

Visiting from Denver, Colorado, Kris Somers and Doug Corley are struck by the vista from Monticello Mountain, the geometric planting beds, and the garden's history.

"I could see him out here experimenting," Somers says. Corley says the garden is an inspiration for backyard gardeners like himself. "I think he was on to something well before we were."

Somers nods in approval, "Yeah, I think that we could still learn a thing or two from what's he's done here for sure."

Peter Hatch says Jefferson's advice to modern day gardeners would be to experiment. Visitors to Monticello can start with seeds harvested from Jefferson's garden on sale in the museum's gift shop.

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