Breaking Ground at Monticello

Thomas Jefferson's garden revolutionized farming. Today, it inspires a new generation to save seeds for a brighter future.
Article: Steve Bender

Most people know a good bit about Thomas Jefferson. They know that he was the third President of the United States, that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that he was a gifted architect as well as a remarkable inventor. What few know, however, is that Jefferson enjoyed killing plants. It was this very predilection that revolutionized the American garden and ultimately changed the way we eat. The scene of his "crimes" was his famed Virginia home, Monticello. Its grounds served as one of the young nation's first true experimental farms. A 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden, terraced by hand into a red clay hillside, embodied the Slow Food (buy local and eat fresh) ethic nearly two centuries before it became a movement. Today, this same garden inspires a new generation of gardeners to preserve locally adapted selections of vegetables and fruits to enrich our diets and promote genetic diversity.

Things in the garden were quite different in December 1977, when Monticello's recently retired director of horticulture, Peter Hatch, arrived on the scene. Back then, he found a garden devoted to growing cut flowers for arrangements in the house. "I was very keen on restoring Jefferson's vegetable garden," he recalls. "I had read his garden book twice."

At that time, most of the 330 types of vegetables Jefferson grew and described in his book had disappeared from Monticello. Peter was determined to bring them back. A legion of seed-saving organizations and individuals came to the rescue. For example, the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, sent seeds of Jefferson's favorite lettuce, 'Tennis Ball.' A visitor to Monticello donated the seeds of pointy-headed oxheart cabbage. John Coykendall of Knoxville, Tennessee, supplied seeds of the 'Red Calico' lima bean Jefferson knew. One by one, Monticello's lost vegetables came home.

Failure Breeds Success
With its neat-as-a-pin rows, iconic pavilion, and spectacular panoramic views of the countryside, today's vegetable garden is beautiful. But to Jefferson, beauty was beside the point. "This wasn't a fancy, old-world kitchen garden," insists Peter. "It was casual and pragmatic. It was a laboratory. It was about results."

To that end, Jefferson planted all sorts of things, often to disastrous ends. His 1809 garden calendar records his misses. "Okra....failed. Eggplant....failed. Sorrel....failed. Windsor beans....killed by bug." This lack of success didn't daunt him, however. He knew that by failing, you discover the path to succeeding. By finding what won't grow, you inevitably find what will. Jefferson concluded, "The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture."

He did this like no one else before or since. Crucial to this endeavor was placing the vegetable garden on an elevated terrace facing due south. In summer, the sunny location absorbed the heat. In winter, cold air sank away. This allowed a year-round harvest and directly fostered his biggest contribution to the Southern dinner table: hot-weather vegetables. Whereas most gardens of the time stuck to the cool-weather crops popular in northern Europe, Monticello's garden represented what Peter calls "an Ellis Island of new and unusual plants from around the world." These included lima beans, squash, okra, eggplant, sweet potatoes, and peanuts—all plants that thrive in heat.

He grew tomatoes and peppers too. Northern Europeans of that time spurned the tomato for its malodorous foliage, reputation for being poisonous, and the sensual appearance of its fruit (called "love apples"). Jefferson, though, embraced and promoted it. His family enjoyed 17 different tomato recipes, including tomato omelets, ketchup, and gazpacho. The Texas bird pepper, obtained from Dr. Samuel Brown of Natchez, Mississippi, was a Jefferson favorite. Highly ornamental and hot as lava, it was used for pepper sauce, pepper vinegar, and pickles. Dr. Dunglison, the Monticello family physician, made a red pepper gargle to relieve the sore throats of Jefferson's granddaughters. This presaged today's use of capsaicin in pain-relieving products.

"The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture." —Thomas Jefferson

America's First "Foodie"
To Jefferson, meat was little more than a condiment for fresh, home-grown vegetables. "He's often called 'America's First Foodie,'" notes Peter. "When he was President, he kept a chart every year of the first and last appearance of 37 different vegetables in the farmers' market in Washington, D.C. Foreign embassies would vie to give him the most unusual vegetables. Jefferson would get the seeds and give them to local farmers with directions for how to grow them. He instructed his French household administrator to pay the top price for the best-tasting tomato or earliest cauliflower that came to market. He set a strong foundation 200 years ago for our current interest in local food and vegetables."

He did the same for sustainable gardening, emphasizing the importance of building good soil through regular applications of organic matter. Jefferson once received a letter from his daughter Martha, complaining about the bugs ravaging her cabbages. He responded by blaming not the plants but the poor soil. "He said that when plants grow in rich soil, it 'bids defiance' to pests and diseases," says Peter. "We've taken his lesson to heart and cover the whole garden every year with organic matter."

Peter points to the Jefferson family's recipe for gumbo as a spot-on metaphor for the incredible impact Jefferson's garden had on American culture. The soup called for tomatoes from South America, squash native to Mexico, potatoes and lima beans from the Andes, and okra brought from Africa with slaves. It was prepared in Monticello's kitchen by African-American chefs who were trained in French cooking. "What a great amalgam of all these traditions that were not only present in Monticello's gardens but also introduced into its food," Peter concludes. "It really defined a new American, Virginian, and Southern cuisine."

Swapping Historic Seeds
One of the country's most influential seed savers, Jefferson viewed this practice as good insurance. He traded seeds with his neighbors and friends knowing that if he lost his seeds or killed his plants, he could always find replacements. Conserving heirloom types of fruits, vegetables, and flowers will be the focus of the sixth-annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, held this year on September 14 and 15.

It's the brainchild of Ira Wallace (pictured on page 84), co-manager of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which collects and sells seeds of historic plants suited to the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions. Offerings include 'German Red Strawberry' tomato, 'Violet's Multicolored' butter bean, 'Whippoorwill' cowpea, and 'Cow Horn' okra. (Jefferson grew the latter two.)

In addition to demonstrations of traditional farming and gardening practices, there will be apple, pickle, tomato, and melon tastings led by Ira and other folks. Don't miss the cider tasting conducted by Virginia's Tom Burford (aka "Professor Apple"). The cider he makes with the 'Hewe's Virginia Crab,' one of Jefferson's apples, is the best you'll ever taste. Check out the seed swap led by "The Bean Man," Rodger Winn, who says, "Seeds like these are ideal for the home gardener because they were perfected by home gardeners. They produce longer and resist regional diseases, and the flavors are outstanding."

To learn more about Monticello and the Heritage Harvest Festival, visit monticello.org.

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