I’ve been wondering why, in the 40+ years I’ve lived in the D.C. area, I’ve waited until this year to visit Monticello, though it’s an easy day-trip distance away. Maybe it’s because Monticello is SO familiar – it’s on our nickel! But still, since its gardens were reestablished in the early ’80s, gardeners have lots more reasons to visit – on top of the usual reasons that any citizen of the world has to inhabit the world of Thomas Jefferson, if even for just a few hours.
There are three tours available to the visitor, and I highly recommend all three – the house, the gardens, and the “plantation” tour, which has recently been renamed the “slave quarters tour”. But here I’ll report briefly on the gardens, starting with the flower beds that circle the West Lawn. Shown here is the excellent garden docent who led my group, with some colorful cockscomb in the foreground.
Originally, Jefferson had each section of the flower borders planted with just one species, so as to display the various plants he collected from all over the world. Since then the beds have been redesigned by the Garden Club of Virginia in a more current mixed-border style, though many of the popular plants from Jefferson’s day were used.
And next, here’s the iconic view of Thomas Jefferson’s kitchen garden at Monticello, showing his little Grecian temple of a garden pavilion in the middle of the 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden. Jefferson had it built for his retirement years, and it took seven slaves using a mule and cart three years to create this terrace out of the hillside. It was completed in 1809.
As an eater, Jefferson chose mainly vegetables, using meats as condiments. For salads he planted lettuces and radishes every two weeks throughout the growing season. And get this – to produce a suitable salad oil for all those salads, he grew his own sesame. His favorite cooked vegetable was the pea, of which he grew 23 varieties.
Jefferson also grew gobs of fruit, like the figs you see here thriving in the warm microclimate along the stone wall of this south-facing hillside. Currently about 50 fig trees are grown here and Director of Gardens Peter Hatch tells me the best ones are the ‘Marseilles’, which Jefferson brought from France, and ‘Brown Turkey’, which is today the most popular variety grown in this region. In total, Jefferson grew about 600 fruit trees, including plenty of apple trees for cider, brandy and livestock.
Jefferson, the Scientific Gardener
From the age of 67, Jefferson tended this kitchen garden, usually with the help of an elderly slave. He collected seeds and carefully recorded results from his experimentation with 330 vegetable varieties in his garden book until his death at age 83. Peter Hatch has read the book in its entirely and says it’s replete with the word “fail”. Jefferson apparently didn’t bother to weed or to edge the beds, as his notes only reflect sowing and harvesting – and the occasional “killed by bug”.
Another detail about Jefferson’s recordkeeping I found intriguing is that during his eight years in the White House he charted first and last days of every crop’s availability at the farmer’s markets in the city. Ever the farmer!
The process of recreating Jefferson’s kitchen garden began in 1979 with two years of archeological excavation. Today, produce from the garden is used in the visitors’ cafeteria, given away at their yearly harvest festival, and used in regular Saturday fruit and vegetable tastings. Seeds from the kitchen and ornamental gardens are collected and sold, and some are grown today in the White House kitchen garden.
Peter Hatch has been Monticello’s Director of Gardens since 1977. He remembers the groundkeeping staff assigned to him then as mountain men from nearby Bacon Holler. He’s done an amazing job bringing the gardens back to life, in addition to his scholarly, award-winning work researching and writing about Jefferson as a gardener.