Laura Dean Bennett
Like many of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was a Renaissance man.
And, like many folks here in Pocahontas County, he was a serious farmer and gardener.
Of course, he had a brilliant career as an internationally renowned statesman, a talented architect, lawyer, diplomat, philosopher and amateur scientist.
And he was the third president of the United States, serving from 1801 to 1809.
However, he took the most pleasure in being at home at Monticello among his fields, gardens, orchards and vineyards, which have now been lovingly restored according to historical records.
These heirloom crops – vegetables, fruit and flowers – are still growing today.
They represent, in essence, America’s first seed bank.
For gardeners who delight in growing heirloom varieties of flowers, herbs and vegetables, there are seeds from some of Jefferson’s favorites available on the Monticello website.
As gardening at Monticello began about 1770, many of the Monticello seeds are from plants that were propagated at least 250 years ago.
The bulk of Jefferson’s gardening was done in a 1,000 foot-long terraced garden carved from the side of the mountain on which his home was built. The terraces were supported by a stone wall that stands more than 12 feet at the highest section.
At the edge of the garden, half-way along the wall, is a charming pavilion designed by Jefferson.
From there Jefferson could survey the gardens as well as take in the view of his orchards and other cultivation.
The pavilion overlooks the garden and the eight-acre orchard of 300 trees, a vineyard, and the many berry plots of figs, currants, gooseberries, and raspberries.
The 24 squares – or growing plots – in the main two-acre garden were arranged according to which part of the plants would be harvested – tomatoes and beans were considered “fruits,” beets and carrots were assigned to the “roots” plot and lettuces and cabbages were grown in the “leaves” plot.
Pocahontas County gardeners will understand the need for Jefferson’s gardens and orchard to be surrounded by a ten-foot-high wooden or “paling” fence, which ran for nearly three-quarters of a mile.
The fence kept deer and other critters out, its boards being placed “so near as not to let even a young hare in,” Jefferson noted.
Jefferson was known to love salad greens.
His system of planting lettuces and radishes every two weeks during the growing season provided greens for salads throughout the summer.
“I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that . . . as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.”
Jefferson took note of what was going on in the garden, above and below ground, and compiled his findings in his “Garden Kalendar.”
Jefferson faithfully recorded detailed descriptions of all daily garden activities and seasonal gardening tasks. Successes and failures of every crop were noted, as were plans for improving soil, propagation and location of each plant, flower or tree.
Dedicated gardeners and even armchair gardeners – those of us who revel in reading about “all things gardening” – will enjoy reading Jefferson’s thoughts, research and opinions, written more than 250 years ago – and still appropo today.
Gardening records, drawings and notes about everything from daily weather conditions and sowing locations at Monticello and Shadwell (the farm Jefferson inherited from his parents) were complied into what was titled Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book.
Jefferson experimented with unusual vegetables and fruits – figs from France, peppers from Mexico, squashes and broccoli from Italy, 20 varieties of beans, 15 types of English peas and salsify, a winter vegetable which was very popular after it was brought back to Jefferson by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The restoration of the Monticello vegetable garden began in 1979 with two years of archaeological excavations to confirm details of the site and structure of the original garden, the wall and pavilion.
In Thomas Jefferson’s eight-acre fruit garden there were at least 150 varieties of 31 of the finest temperate species of fruit ever collected in the New World.
The “Fruitery” as Jefferson called it, included the 400-tree South Orchard; two small vineyards; “berry squares” of currants, gooseberries, and raspberries; a nursery for fruit trees and special garden plants, and special beds for figs and strawberries next to the stone wall, where they enjoyed a warmer location.
Jefferson had as many as 1,031 fruit trees in the South Orchard.
This orchard was planted in a horseshoe-shape around the two vineyards and berry squares.
The fruit was harvested for cider, brandy or as livestock feed.
Herbs were very important for use in medicines and at the 18th century table. In 1794, in his Garden Kalendar, Jefferson made a list of useful herbs: English Lavender, Long Island Mammoth Dill, Borage, Roman Chamomile, Sweet Basil, Greek Oregano, Italian Parsley, Rosemary, Sage and Thyme.
Monticello is surrounded with flower gardens designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Twenty oval flowerbeds are tucked in the corners around his home and the sprawling West Lawn is bordered by a dramatic display of blooms.
Just as most modern gardeners enjoy receiving cuttings and seeds from a friend’s flower beds or garden, Jefferson used both the “old nursery” below his main garden wall and the “new nursery” for propagating those little treasures from friends, neighbors and the plants which were brought back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The beauty and historical significance of the Monticello gardens are a tribute to the intelligence, curiosity, ingenuity and dedication of America’s third president.
The fact that we can, even today, visit the magnificent home and gardens of Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, and see the gardens, orchards and vineyards almost exactly as they were designed and planted by Jefferson, is a wonder.
Whether you are a “hands in the dirt,” or a “few herbs and flowers in pots on the porch” kind of gardener, let Thomas Jefferson’s love of gardening and his Garden Book be your inspiration.