The term ‘organic gardening’ is now in use today more than ever. J. I. Rodale understood the relationship between the soil and healthy plants but Thomas Jefferson made the connection long before that. And, although everyone gardened ‘organically’ back then, he was a pioneer using his garden as a laboratory.
Joe and Patti visit Jefferson’s Charlottesville home, Monticello, to speak with the undisputed authority on Thomas Jefferson’s gardening practices, Peter Hatch. He is the Director of Gardens and Grounds for the Monticello estate.
The 1,000-foot kitchen garden at Monticello, is legendary for the variety and scale of its vegetable production. Growing more than 330 vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit, many of the procedures and practices Jefferson observed and recorded are still in use today as sustainable organic gardening methods.
About to retire from the Presidency in 1809, he was intent on having a garden at his estate. It took three years for seven slaves he had hired from a Fredericksburg, Va. farmer to carve out the garden on the southern slope of Monticello Mountain. Below the massive stone retaining wall is a fruit orchard.
As a testament to his gardening acumen proper siting of the garden high on the sunny slope allowed Jefferson to garden late into the season. Cold air flowed down the mountainside into the valley below while warm air rose to protect the orchard and garden from damaging frosts. Each winter heavy applications of manure enriched the soil for future plantings. Important principles for today’s gardeners.
Jefferson collected seeds from everywhere he traveled, experimenting extensively at his garden site and was never afraid of failure. He was active in the gardening process, sowing seeds himself and keeping meticulous records. According to Mr. Hatch he was certainly one of the first “foodies” in America and probably the first “gardener”.
“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden…But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
(Jefferson to Charles W. Peale, August 20, 1811. Lipscomb, Andrew A. and Albert Ellery Bergh, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 13. Washington D.C.: Issued under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1903-04, p. 79.)
Next we meet Pat Brodowski, Monticello’s Head Gardener as she talks with Patti about the early influences on Jefferson’s gardening. He was mostly influenced by Greek and Roman literature and in particular Roman agricultural methods. She and Patti plant basil in a classic staggered Roman diamond pattern known as a quincunx.
Joe and Pat discuss and demonstrate how to save lettuce seed. Most of us never see a lettuce plant in flower, but Jefferson would allow some plants to flower so he could use and share the seeds each year. As Pat explains, he would plant a thimble full of lettuce seeds each Monday April through October, so he would have fresh lettuce daily.
And one of Jefferson’s favorite vegetables was peas. He would record every detail of when they were planted, when they sprouted, flowered, set pods and most importantly when they came ‘to table’. Chef Nathan Lyon uses this favorite in a delicious and easy stir-fry.
For more information:
Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book
Organic Gardening: It’s Easier Than You Think