Home & Garden

Thomas Jefferson’s gardens are part of his legacy

The gardens at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Va., are worth a visit.
The gardens at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Va., are worth a visit. Tribune News Service

I was having lunch the other day at The Original Waffle Shop on North Atherton Street and engaging Reed McCormick in a wide ranging conversation on politics, local news, state of the university and life in general. He asked, “Why don’t you incorporate those subjects in your column?” I responded that my column is really geared toward gardening and not politics, etc., but I would give it a try. So here it goes.

I gave it some thought and came up with the idea of something on Thomas Jefferson, who was, by the way, a lawyer. Being a history buff and having read a lot on Jefferson I would consider him a true “renaissance” man. He played the violin, was an astute politician, governor of Virginia, author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the United States, designer and founder of the University of Virginia, put together the greatest land deal of all time — the Louisiana Purchase — commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition to check it all out, was the designer and architect of Monticello, a connoisseur of fine wine — especially Madeira — and an avid collector books and plants.

In addition, he designed farm tools and exchanged numerous letters with others of his time on better farming practices. I have always wished that I could go back in time and dine with Jefferson to discuss a variety of subjects while sampling his collection of fine Madeira wines.

Jefferson kept extensive journals on his gardens at Monticello, which is why that modern preservationist can recreate his gardens as they were in his day.

He kept accurate weather records and notes on planting dates and procedures, row spacing, when blossoms appeared on a crop, harvest dates, varieties, thoughts on how they performed and more. He needed extensive gardens to supply not only his family but also all those that dropped in to visit him for a few days. He really cared about putting fresh vegetables on the table for those that visited him at his mountaintop retreat.

In all that I have read on Jefferson, I would say that he was happiest when he was back at Monticello and tending his gardens. Maybe he felt more alive being in the garden among the vegetables, flowers and fruit trees. I know he loved his books because one of his famous quotes is “I cannot live without books.” I also believe he loved his gardens. Jefferson said, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Jefferson actually made note of many failures in his gardening notebooks, which many of us can also attest to in our own gardens.

Jefferson’s collection of books is what made up the beginning of the Library of Congress. He loved to read and to learn about a myriad of subjects. On a side note, Monticello survives because of the efforts of its two major owners of the period between when Jefferson died and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation assumed stewardship of the property, which was in 1923, almost 100 years. The two major owners were Uriah Phillips Levy, USN, and his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy. These two men and their families held a very modern notion that the houses of great men should be preserved as “monuments to their glory,” and their stewardship of the home and property is remarkable and significant. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for preserving Monticello.

If you want to read more about Jefferson’s gardens I would suggest the book “A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden” at Monticello by Peter Hatch and I also suggest a visit to Monticello. It is well worth the time.

Bill Lamont is a Professor Emeritus of Vegetable Crops in the Department of Plant Science at Penn State and can be reached by e-mail at wlamont@psu.edu.