When I found myself in central Virginia last week, I did what any red-blooded American vegetable gardener would do: I took the Monticello garden tour. While most people think of Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence, vegetable gardeners know him for his contributions to organic gardening and to garden design.
Jefferson was a pioneer in what we now regard as the core organic methods. He used manure to fertilize, mulches to retain moisture in the soil and hold down weeds, and interplanting strategies to discourage insects.
While Jefferson may not have been the first or only person of his time who used these strategies in his gardens, he made detailed records of what was planted and when, how the crops fared and how he laid out his gardens. As a true man of the Enlightenment, he also experimented and recorded his observations, which he shared with other gardeners.
Jefferson's notes and correspondence have made it possible for modern-day gardeners at Monticello to reproduce the garden he designed and personally oversaw after his retirement in 1809. Planted on a terrace hewn into the side of Monticello's mountain, the garden, which is 1,000 feet long and 80 feet wide, is divided into squares that contain rows of a single vegetable or of complementary varieties. This has the effect of compartmentalizing the garden. By doing away with long, widely spaced rows, Jefferson economized on water.
The amount of detail in Jefferson's vision of both flower and vegetable gardening is truly astonishing and made the garden tour so esoteric that by the time our guide led us from the flower beds to the vegetable patch, all but four members of our group had wandered off.
According to our guide, Jefferson's favorite vegetable was the pea, and he and his neighbors had annual contests to see who could harvest the first pea. The guide also mentioned a factoid I had heard before, namely that Jefferson is credited with introducing the tomato into the American diet, countering the mistaken assumption that it was toxic.
Monticello is located in Zone 7 and has a longer growing season than we do here in Zone 5. As a result, Jefferson's garden was planted three times in a season.
Varieties of vegetables that Jefferson grew that are represented in the reproduction of his garden include Arikara and Scarlet Runner beans, Blue Prussian and Prince Albert peas, Brown Dutch lettuce, Yellow Crookneck squash, the Long Red Cayenne pepper, the Sweet Potato pumpkin and the Alpine strawberry.
Where Jeffersonian varieties are no longer available, the garden staff now substitutes others grown in the 19th century.
Seeds are harvested from some of the flowers and vegetables grown at Monticello and sold to the public through the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. Its Web page is accessible through www.monticello.org.
As awe-inspiring as it is, it is impossible to view the garden without also considering the role of Monticello's slaves. Not only did they carve the garden terrace out of the mountainside, but their ongoing labor in the garden supplied much of the food for the approximately 150 residents of the plantation. The quaintness of the reproduction, staffed by paid employees who now have one of the best gardening jobs going, minimizes this fact.
Out of respect for both Jefferson's vision and the people who made it happen, every gardener should make the pilgrimage to Monticello.
When I returned to my own humble plot and began pulling the weeds that had accumulated in my absence, I was struck by how my attachment to my own garden had deepened. Those of us who grow food for the table are part of something that transcends space and time. Monticello is a reminder that every time we lift a hoe, we connect with gardeners across generations.