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Thomas Jefferson's Garden: A story complicated to contemplate

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Thomas Jefferson's garden during his retirement from public life at Monticello, 1809-1826, was the terraced vegetable garden, a thousand-foot-long experimental laboratory overlooking the rolling Piedmont Virginia countryside. ...

"[The] Monticello vegetable garden was a revolutionary American garden. Many of the summer vegetables we take for granted today -- tomatoes, okra, eggplant, lima beans, peanuts, peppers -- were slow to appear in North American gardens around 1800. European travelers commented on the failure of Virginia gardeners to take advantage of 'the fruitful warmth of the climate' because of the American reliance on 'the customary products of Europe': cool-season vegetables. Jefferson's garden was unique in showcasing a medley of vegetable species native to hot climates, from South and Central America to Africa to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. ...

"The Monticello garden is distinctly American in its scale and scope. More than two hundred thousand cubic feet of Piedmont red clay was moved with a mule and cart by a crew of enslaved men Jefferson hired from a Fredericksburg, Virginia, farmer. Over three years they created the garden terrace, which was retained by five thousand tons of rock laid as high as twelve feet and extending the length of the garden. Jefferson's four-hundred-tree south orchard, surrounding two vineyards, extended below the wall and vegetable terrace, and the entire complex was enclosed by a ten-foot-high paling fence that ran for more than half a mile. ... Atop the massive stone wall, Jefferson designed a classically inspired temple or pavilion, described appropriately as an 'observatory' by some Monticello visitors. ...

"The creation of the one-thousand-foot-long vegetable garden was the fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson's retirement yearnings, and he finally began to direct the actual work during a late spring 1806 visit to Monticello. ...


"It was backbreaking work, and one can imagine, particularly in wet winter weather, the heavy, raw, red clay, slippery to even stand on, being chiseled out of the earth one spade at a time. ...

"[Jefferson] returned to Monticello from Washington on March 17, 1809. ... Despite the 'remarkably backward' (cold) season the garden was apparently in a state of general completion, a miraculous feat considering the haste in which work had proceeded over the previous winter. ...

"Jefferson's retirement year was the most active and prolific vegetable gardening year in his lifetime, with the [calendar] including nearly one hundred different plantings. These spilled exuberantly from the terrace -- to the asparagus squares, nursery, orchard, and vineyards below the garden. ... Jefferson described his retirement to [Monticello's maitre d'hotel] Etienne Lemaire on April 25 in the flush of spring: 'I am constantly in my garden or farms, as exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors when at Washington, and I find myself infinitely happier in my new mode of life.' "

Author: Peter J. Hatch
Title: "A Rich Spot of Earth"
Publisher: Yale University Press
Date: Copyright 2012 by The Jefferson Foundation, Inc.
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