Thomas Jefferson the Gardener Set His Sights High to Reap the Earth's Bounty

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Montalto is the high peak above Thomas Jefferson's little mountain of Monticello. From this lofty perch you can see Jefferson's life shaped in the land. Far to the right, in the valley, there's the third president's boyhood home, Shadwell.

As you gaze on Monticello itself, 400 feet below and almost a mile distant, you observe the brick Palladian villa. This is not the predominant element. That prize goes to the vegetable garden, a 1,000-foot-long terrace, 80 feet wide, suggesting Noah's ark perched post-flood on Mount Ararat.

Home vegetable gardening is trendy again and got a huge boost last month when Michelle Obama led a crew of fifth-graders in breaking ground on a White House plot on the South Lawn.The President's House, as Jefferson knew it when he was the occupant, was too raw and muddy for serious gardening in the first decade of the 19th century. Instead, he arranged the construction of his vegetable garden above Charlottesville so that it would be ready for his long and fertile retirement.

"The notion of gardening as a food source, as recreation and as salvation for the future are all legacies we can learn from Thomas Jefferson," says Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at since 1977. Hatch, a lyrical scholar of Jefferson the gardener, sees a figure who would be heartily embraced by the food activists who pressured the Obamas to plant a garden.

He refers to the sage of Monticello as "the original foodie." On a tour, Hatch points out the garden peas emerging from the dark soil, and the burgeoning sea kale, kept blanched by clay pots Jefferson designed for the job. "He was America's first epicurean president, perhaps the only one."

Jefferson relied on slaves to build and maintain the garden, but he took an active and inquisitive role in choosing the plants and doing much of the sowing. His garden diary and related correspondence reveal a practical gardener who understood the holistic concepts of organic gardening that successive generations have had to relearn.

Hatch, 59, also says Jefferson invented the style of vegetable gardening we know today, and the idea of this garden as an ark is perhaps not so far-fetched, though Hatch thinks of it more as an Ellis Island. This two-acre plateau, rebuilt in the early 1980s, quickly became a gathering place for vegetables from around the world.

To see Jefferson as a gardening revolutionary as well as a political one, Hatch says, you have to look at what his contemporaries were growing. At other Virginia plantations, the model was of the English or French walled kitchen garden, with hot frames and formal paths. The notion was of a garden that was not only highly formal and laborious but designed to raise marginal plants in cool climes. Virginia has a sort of northern European climate in spring and fall, but a subtropical one in the summer that would have been difficult for traditional root vegetables and impossible for such things as cabbage and its relatives, or spinach.

"Many of these contemporary gardens were pretty bare in the summertime," Hatch says. Jefferson had already become versed in more novel and heat-tolerant veggies while in Washington -- he had asked his ambassadors to procure seeds around the world.

He championed the tomato, which didn't take off until the first two decades of the 19th century (Europeans thought it poisonous and possibly, as Hatch conjectures, too sensual a fruit). He added to the summer garden such heat lovers as crowder peas, peanuts, sweet potatoes, peppers, lima beans, eggplant, asparagus and okra. "It's the true American garden," Hatch writes in a manuscript for a book on the subject. "No one else had ever before assembled such a collection of vegetable novelties, culled from virtually every western culture known at the time, then disseminated by Jefferson with the persistence of a religious reformer."

He assembled varieties that included plants cultivated by Native Americans, black slaves and Creoles. But he looked back to England for his most famous spring crop, the garden pea. He held an annual contest with Charlottesville neighbors to see who could raise the first crop. A zealot named George Divers usually won.

Jefferson, who said he regarded meat merely as a condiment, was a salad nut. He planted a spinach variety called Prickly Seeded, and 17 varieties of lettuce, including Tennis Ball and Brown Dutch. His advice for other gardeners was to take a thimbleful of lettuce seed every Monday morning from February to September, and to sow it in the garden. This would ensure a succession of fresh greens all season. His plant records demonstrate that he followed his advice, Hatch said.

Jefferson wrote freely of the therapeutic value of gardening. His gardening activity increased during periods of stress, including the death of his daughter, Maria, and during the Aaron Burr treason trial. Jefferson made no secret of his weariness of public life while he was still in the White House.

After he returned to Monticello, he wrote that "I am constantly in my garden, as exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors in Washington, and I find myself infinitely happier in my new mode of life." When he retired at 66, he was old by the standard of the day, but he gardened into his early 80s.

In time, he was to battle arthritis defiantly in the garden. Hatch calls it "a rage against the pathos of age. To the age of 83 he was this playful, recreational gardener."

He was also an influential one, creating a personal paradise that Hatch calls "a distinctly American garden in its scale and scope and diversity, and a rejection of the Old World kitchen garden."

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