Among the many pleasures of Andrea Wulf’s new book “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation” is her explanation of the ornamented farm and the way it captivated the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The concept, originally French and called ferme ornée, took hold in 18th-century England among the aristocracy, bent on making their farms more like elegant estates — or their estates more farmy.
At its philosophical best, the idea was, in the words of Stephen Switzer, its foremost English practitioner, that beauty and utility might become inseparable by “mixing the useful and profitable parts of Gard’ning with the Pleasurable.” At the opposite extreme, it spawned pretentious embellishments to barns and Marie Antoinette’s pretend farm at Versailles .
For Jefferson, farming was paramount, not as ornament or nostalgic fancy, but as a practice that informed his views of how to live and govern. His Monticello, as restored today, reflects both his seriousness as an experimental grower and his fine aesthetic eye. It is one of the best proofs that beauty and productivity are inseparable in horticulture, in plots large and small. That’s a lesson often forgotten, when hydrangeas and petunias are given center stage and food crops are hidden out back with the clothesline.
For me, the rules of beauty and bounty are simple and few: Vegetables and fruits grown in a living soil, well nourished, display their health and are satisfying to look at.
Plants choked by weeds, and thus deprived of their share of nutrients and sunlight, are unsightly. A chaotic garden reflects its gardener’s indifference and lack of care.
Plantings laid out in a regular manner are easier to tend. Their geometry might be rectilinear, with straight lines and right angles, or they might run in parallel curves, as in contour farming, to prevent a hilly plot from eroding. Such gardens and farms, which signal the gardener’s intelligence and engagement, are pleasing to the eye.
To control their outcomes, farms and gardens are set off from wild nature. But when they are within view of it, not only is their appearance more varied and interesting, but they partake in the wholesome diversity of wild pollinators and beneficial predators. Which would you rather see: fields divided by flowering hedgerows, full of birds, butterflies and bees, or endless miles of genetically engineered corn?
Interestingly, a number of wealthy Americans are now adding farms to their large landscapes. Are these mere ornaments? Maybe a few are. But with farmland rapidly disappearing, let’s cheer these estate farmers on. The ones I’ve met are intent on growing good food, and when they look out on their potatoes and kumquats, they find them beautiful.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”