How to Plant a Garden Using Jeffersonian Principles

Use Jefferson’s Monticello gardens as inspiration for planting a garden of your own.

| March/April 2016

  • The Monticello gardens are undeniably beautiful. Jefferson enjoyed spending time there. You can apply his principles to create your own backyard paradise.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • The Monticello gardens included a south-facing vineyard.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Jefferson used many tools to change growing conditions for experimenting.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Keep Jefferson's principles in mind when planting a garden.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • A small area can yield plenty of fresh produce. Grow several types of leafy greens to determine the best performers in your area.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Jefferson experimented with varieties from all over the world. Experiment with exotic varieties like these Purple Peruvian potatoes.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Use hoop houses and raised beds to change growing conditions and create microclimates to better suit certain vegetable varieties.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • A Jeffersonian garden will help inspire gardeners and forge friendships.
    Illustration by Brad Anderson

Do just a little digging into the history of American gardening, and you’ll soon discover Thomas Jefferson’s deep love of horticulture. A favorite quote among those of us with dirt under our nails: “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, no culture comparable to that of the garden … But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” What does this say about Jefferson’s philosophy on gardening? I’d bet most gardeners feel the same way – there’s always more to learn.

If you spend any time at all reading about Mr. Jefferson’s gardening habits, or even visiting Monticello, you’ll want to follow in his footsteps. While I wouldn’t recommend attempting to level a mountaintop to create a 1,000-foot garden, you can garden in his spirit. While the results might not be Monticello, plenty of Jefferson’s ideas translate well to your backyard.

Heart of a nation

What does it mean to garden in Jefferson’s spirit? He believed that, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” It’s hard to deny Jefferson’s passion for green and growing things. The answer to the question is as simple as adopting his practices and principles in your own “rich spot of earth,” as he so elegantly romanticized in his letter to Charles Willson Peale, longing for “a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market … .” Your Jeffersonian garden can be as basic or as grand as you choose to make it. You’ll probably discover you’ve been practicing a few of his ideas already.

Thomas Jefferson believed in an agricultural future for America. One might even say its soul could be found in agriculture – a nation of “yeoman farmers” and self-taught scholars working the land. He even went so far as to argue that America’s representatives to the people should be “… farmers whose interests are entirely agricultural. Such men are the true representatives of the great American interest, and are alone to be relied on for expressing the proper American sentiments.”

What to try

So where do we start? Grow where you are, that’s where. At one point in his career, Jefferson lived in a Philadelphia apartment, away from his beloved Monticello. While there, he grew pots of rice on a windowsill. The perfect situation will present itself if you create it. Plant some herbs in a window box if you must, or grow tomatoes in a bucket. You might be surprised at what you learn: Eggplants make beautiful specimen plants in a flower garden, and morning glories can quickly hide an ugly chainlink fence.

Take a chance on something seemingly impossible. American gardening in Jefferson’s day was a brave new world; no one really knew what was possible. The assumption was that what grew “back home” would grow the same here. Jefferson pushed the envelope, planting French wine grapes, Turkish asparagus and New England sugar maples in Virginia. Some worked, others didn’t. Push your own envelope. Grow figs in Boston, sweet corn in Phoenix, melons in Tillamook. Take a chance on something that isn’t traditionally grown in your area. Success may require learning a few tricks, like planting against a south-facing wall or near the outflow of a rain gutter.

4/25/2016 9:18:37 AM

Seedman, I agree; seed saving was crucial to Mr. Jefferson's gardens. He could not have assured their continuation had he not saved seed. That being said, I chose not to include this as all gardeners of the time needed to save their own seed for their gardens, and I wanted to focus on what made Mr. Jefferson stand out in his day. Thank you for taking the time to remind us of this absolutely vital aspect of Late Colonial/Early Federal horticultural history.

4/23/2016 7:34:41 PM

You missed the most important point. Jefferson was perhaps our nation's greatest seed saver. His garden would not have worked had he not brought back seeds from all his journeys and saved the best from whatever worked in his own garden.

3/13/2016 8:51:58 PM

Hello Annette! I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the article. I very much enjoyed writing it, and am happy to share what I've learned on the subject. No doubt Mr. Jefferson would approve of our global correspondences!

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