Over a long career, he directed the cultivation of one of the grandest vegetable gardens in the world — a two-acre, 1,000-foot-long plateau below Jefferson’s Palladian palace. When a hurricane came through, he would organize the estate’s preparations and the cleanup. After a winter blizzard, Hatch orchestrated a soundscape of rumbling snowplows and waspish chain saws. On a routine day, he could be seen riding a tractor or pulling weeds.
“I liked the nuts and bolts of it,” he says. But to think of Hatch as a groundskeeper alone would be to regard Jefferson merely as a rosy-cheeked country lawyer from Charlottesville. As a close observer of the agrarian Jefferson and as an author, Hatch has probably done more than anyone else in defining the third president as a gardener, a farmer, an orchardist, a viniculturist. A Founding Father literally grounded in the American soil.
Hatch has capped his career with a book, “A Rich Spot of Earth,” in which we find the curious and multifaceted Jefferson with a curious and multifaceted garden: a personal garden, a community garden, a national collection of plants from the Lewis and Clark Expedition — a garden as miscellaneous as America itself. Hatch links Jefferson’s endeavors to the political, social and environmental currents now swirling around the garden-to-table movement.
After years of not just studying old planting schemes, but also replicating them in a rank of square plant beds, Hatch argues that Jefferson discarded the Colonial model of a formal garden and embraced new veggies that would flourish in the Virginia heat — tomatoes, squash, okra, eggplant, peanuts, peppers and lima beans. Jefferson introduced his fellow gardeners to a veggie smorgasbord that resonates still, though he also tried the more obscure sea kale, winter melon, orach and black salsify.
Jefferson recorded planting 330 varieties of 99 species of vegetables and herbs.
He grew Indian corn but also turned his garden, Hatch says, into “an Ellis Island of introduced vegetables.” In coming to terms with the First Foodie (Hatch’s label), we are lucky to have Jefferson’s garden not just on paper but rebuilt on the side of his perch in the Blue Ridge. The terrace is held together with a stone wall with 5,000 tons of rock — it took a crew of slaves three years to create the garden in advance of Jefferson’s retirement, and it took another three years, in the early 1980s, to reconstruct it after careful archaeological inquiry led by Monticello’s now-retired architectural historian, William Beiswanger, and archaeologist William Kelso.
When Hatch arrived earlier, in 1977, the rough contours were evident, but not the structure of the garden. The wall had been partially dismantled or buried in earth, part of the garden was a parking lot, and much of it was used as a cut-flower garden for arrangements in the house.