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.
While you’re at it, make comparisons. Jefferson grew Cherokee, Pawnee and “sweet or shriveled” corn in order to compare their performances. Plant some new varieties along with tried-and-true varieties to see which ones give the best results. Even better, try growing the same varieties in different conditions. Compare particular crops growing in an eastern exposure versus a western exposure. Plant some seeds of one variety a few weeks earlier than the rest, or a few weeks later. Compare growing in drier soils to wetter ones. Be sure to do this over several years, to see what effects weather has on your results. Save seeds from these plants to eventually create locally adapted strains, but make certain they haven’t cross-pollinated.
This leads us to a very important, very Jeffersonian, practice: record keeping. Jefferson kept five different daily logs, four of them being his Farm, Account, Memorandum, and Garden Book. In the Garden Book he made note of planting dates, weather conditions, harvest dates and crop failures. Armed with this information, gathered over decades, he could puzzle out the most successful planting times according to both date and condition. Keep your own garden log, jotting down dates, notes and observations, on a daily basis if you can. Include daily high and low temperatures and weather conditions. Your log can be as fancy or as simple as you like. After all, it’s your log. You can also use online digital resources like Grit’s Food Garden Planner to help you track everything online in one spot.
Once you’ve been keeping your log for a year or so, you’ll know what to expect from your growing season, and you can begin maximizing it. Jefferson placed his vineyard below the south terrace wall to simulate a more Mediterranean-like microclimate. He also instructed his overseer to sow a thimbleful of lettuce seed every week. This was done to determine the best time to plant lettuce – no doubt, an added bonus would have been an extended season of salads. Try planting early crops under floating row covers, succession planting salad greens, or creating microclimates to make the most of your growing season.
Tools of the trade
Gadgets can help you extend the season and make gardening easier in general. Jefferson loved his gadgets: his thimble seed measure, his three-legged folding stool, and his pocket notebook with pages carved from wafers of ivory. Make full use of labor-saving devices; make them if you can, or buy them if you must. Mount an old mailbox on your garden gate for storing hand tools and grocery bags for quick harvests. Repurpose a garden hose, retired kitchen sink and shipping pallet to build an outdoor wash station for your root vegetables. If what you need does not exist, invent it.
Of course, once you’ve dreamed up and tested a good idea, you’ll want to share it. Jefferson loved to discuss gardening, whether by writing to correspondents, joining horticultural societies, or sharing new ideas with friends and neighbors. There are lots of ways to get together with other gardeners. Join a garden club, or start one. Find an Internet gardening forum, such as The Garden Professors or IDigMyGarden, and engage in conversation. Even better, become a Master Gardener. Jefferson would most heartily approve. He used his garden to trial new varieties so he could make accurate recommendations of what would grow well in Virginia, and in America in general.
Joining groups like these also provides an excellent opportunity to share and trade seeds from around the world. The garden at Monticello featured Mandan corn, Arikara beans, Italian figs and German “turnip cabbage” (kohlrabi), and Jefferson traded internationally with Andre Thouin of France’s Jardin des Plantes and others. Make trading a ritual. Find some nice, small envelopes for packets – manila coin envelopes serve nicely. Take your time to neatly letter them with seed type, variety and collection date. Use a calligraphy pen to give your handiwork extra flair. Be generous with the seeds you share, and be adventurous with the seeds you accept in trade.
What’s gardening without a little friendly competition? Every year, Jefferson and his Charlottesville gardening friend, George Divers, accepted a challenge to “bring the first peas to table.” The winner took bragging rights for the year, along with the honor of serving those peas to his family at a celebration dinner. (The year Jefferson won – he chose not to tell anyone, so Divers’ winning streak would not end.) Racing for the first ripe tomato makes a great competition among friends, and many growers take giant vegetables, like half-ton pumpkins, serious – very serious. Join a garden tour schedule and challenge yourself to keeping your beds showcase-perfect.
Enjoying the fruits
Perhaps the most fundamental Jeffersonian principle is simply spending time in your garden. Jefferson made a point of getting out in his garden as much as possible, laying out plots with a theodolite (a type of surveying instrument) and lines, plucking figs, taking notes, and using the garden as his own laboratory. Spend some time in your own garden every day, even if only for a five-minute stroll. Add a park bench along a pathway. Mix some zinnias in with your vegetables to attract bees and other pollinators. Be daring and tuck a few lettuces into a flowerbed. Every time you work in the garden, take a few minutes afterwards to relax and enjoy the visual fruits of your labor, ambling through your paths and aisles. Enjoy your garden.
After leaving the Presidency, Jefferson wrote to his former President’s House manager Etienne Lemaire, “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.”
Your Jeffersonian garden doesn’t need to stretch 1,000 feet, and no one expects you to create a “mini-Monticello” in your backyard. Thomas Jefferson’s gardening spirit requires something far removed from strict recreation, after all. To garden like Jefferson, you need only try new things, experiment, share, learn and enjoy.
Most importantly, make your garden a part of you, a part of your life. Do this, and I have no doubt, Mr. Jefferson would be proud.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He enjoys researching, gardening and history, especially when they come together. Like Jefferson, he holds a deep fascination with the natural world, and appreciates Jefferson’s sentiments on gardening culture.