A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden at Monticello PDF Print E-mail
In the Library

One of the pleasures of multigenerational living is witnessing our children walk in our footsteps. Even in the little things, it is so rewarding! Since I always read books that strengthened our spirits, enlightened our minds, inspired our creativity, and soothed our souls, Sonia now surprises me with books that do just that!


alt“A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello by Peter J. Hatch


Although not a fan of Thomas Jefferson, I cannot help but admire his ingenuity, love of the land, and penchant for meticulous record keeping. Encapsulated in this beautifully illustrated book is his devotion to the tending of the garden. Not unlike Adam’s acquisition, he learned through experimentation and observation as he systematically studied and recorded the structure and behavior of the natural world. And through his meticulous management of all aspects of gardening, he became a world-renowned horticulturist, equally revered today as he was nearly two centuries ago.


Naturally, it stands to reason, then, that the man who has worked and managed Monticello’s 2,400 acres for the past 35 years should be the one to tell its story. In the Foreword to “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello, Alice Waters rightly states of Peter Hatch: “He beautifully communicates the beliefs of one of our most visionary Founding Fathers: That our country is built upon the principles of our farmers, and that our relationship to the land our food comes from is one of the most fundamental relationships of all. Thomas Jefferson’s garden, Peter writes, was ‘an Ellis Island of introductions, filled with a whole world of hardy economic plants: 330 varieties of ninety-nine species of vegetables and herbs’…We desperately need to reconnect ourselves to the pastoral and self-sufficient tradition that Jefferson built; nothing is more vital than returning this tradition to the very heart of American culture.


Though the cultivation of the land goes back to our agrarian roots in Genesis, “the very heart of American culture” was tied to this land as the New Israel—a Promised Land filled with the magnificent bounty of a gracious Father. Early settlers and founding fathers alike believed that the Lord their God had brought them “into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything…When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).


In fact, “In 1776, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wanted Promised Land images for the new nation’s Great Seal. Franklin proposed Moses dividing the Red (Reed) Sea with Pharaoh’s army being overwhelmed by the closing waters. Jefferson urged a representation of the Israelites being led in the wilderness by the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. Later, in his second inaugural address (1805), Jefferson again recalled the Promised Land. ‘I shall need...the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life.’” http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/joshua/manifest.html Conrad Cherry (ed.), God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1971)


So contrary to the popular view that often portrays Puritans and Colonists as stuffy minimalists, their diet alone refutes this fallacy, as a rich and varied menu occupied their daily table. Salsa, stuffed eggplant, stuffed cabbage puddings, black bean soups, potato chips, salads with vinaigrettes, peas with mint, asparagus on buttered toast, squash and cauliflower soups, even “sautéed fresh peas boiled with onion, egg yolks, cloves, and brown sugar to make a sweet custardy sauce” were among the many dishes served in early American homes. Jefferson even introduced French fries to the American table.


Black radishes, blue potatoes, white asparagus, sea kale, purple tomatoes, red pulp cucumbers, artichokes, asparagus beans, whippoorwill peas, salsify, Canterbury Dwarf beans, and Burmillions squash are just a few of the many varieties these minimalists enjoyed compared to the basic one choice selection we find at our grocery stores. Instead of the common green cabbage we see today, Jefferson recorded thirty types of cabbages in his garden along with an astounding list of beans, the likes I have never seen. Jefferson even grew artichokes, peanuts, figs, and hops for home brew and pressed his own sesame seeds for sesame oil.


I was so enthralled with Jefferson’s array of vegetables that I copied some of his personal favorites like green curled Savoy and Oxheart cabbage, cow’s horn okra, brown Dutch lettuce, salsify, Arikara bean, carnation cherry, Caracalla flowering bean, and Egyptian onion trees to be added to our garden. I also noted that Sonia and I should pickle our nasturtium seeds next year according to the recipe in the book and use them in place of capers. But perhaps the most practical lesson I noted, and certainly the sweetest, was to sow “a thimble of lettuce seeds each week.”


And in regard to our culture’s current epicurean fixation on “Garden to Table” foods, we possess nothing over our early founders, as Garden to Table was their way of life. From the first spring pea to the last rutabaga and carrot, food from the garden became their day’s meals.


And to the extent of Jefferson’s garden, he had not one but two vineyards, and obviously more than one orchard, as the south orchard was planted with 400 fruit trees. But his exuberance for cultivating the earth is perhaps most clearly seen in his enormous monumental undertaking of carting 200,000 cubic feet of dirt to form his 1,000 foot kitchen garden bed. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this space, the asparagus alone occupied seven beds each forty feet long. Incredibly large to urbanites, but to a man who figured that he needed 25 bushels of potatoes and 20 bushels of turnips for the winter table places this in perspective with the grand scope of feeding such a large number of people.


With this magnitude of responsibility came meticulous record keeping of when seeds were sown, when transplanted, where transplanted, when harvested, when expired, and when seeds were gathered. Actually, Jefferson’s documentation of “triumphs and failures” spanned nearly six decades in a book that he titled simply Garden Book, considered “a horticultural diary without parallel in early American garden history.” An extraordinary work, this Garden Book connects us to the land, and to our roots, and provides an intimate glimpse into our ancestors’ way of life—a way of life that brought continuity to the various generations of family, friends, and neighbors.


Revealed in an abundance of correspondences, seeds and their fruit were a means for social intercourse. “In 1792 Jefferson wrote his daughter Martha that ‘the next year we will sow our cabbages together,’ this modest but beautiful vegetable became an image of their familial happiness. He also harvested with grandchildren, sent produce and seeds to friends, hosted elaborate “Garden to Table” dinners, and held an annual spring pea competition in which the first gardener to harvest a spring pea had the honor of hosting a community dinner for all the Charlottesville neighbors. Jefferson’s unabated zeal for the garden pea even led neighbors to grow peas to give as gifts to him.


Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the cultivation of the land led him to believe that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture.” To that end, he worked meticulously, experimenting with seeds sent to him from abroad and from friends and neighbors at home. Perseverance was certainly one of his virtues, as failed attempts seemed to foster renewed vigor for replanting. Consequently, this continual quest for bringing new crops to his native land led him to become the “pioneer cultivator of the rutabaga, a revolutionary crop for its storage capabilities and food value.


While Jefferson read the Bible and even possessed an admiration of Jesus, he could not bring himself to accept Christ’s divinity, preferring instead to trust in man’s intellectual capabilities of reasoning. Despite this fact, he undoubtedly reflected the indelible mark of His Creator’s image as he tended to that rich spot of earth he called home. For though we may stray from our original commission, some time during our lifetime we usually find our way back to the garden!


Jefferson wrote, “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one thro’ the year. Under a total want of demand except for our family table I am still devoted to the garden. But tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.” Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote of her grandfather, “He loved farming and gardening, the fields, the orchards, and his asparagus beds.


Genesis 1:19 “Then God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.” Genesis 2:15 “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”


“The Monticello vegetable garden is a living expression of the genius of Jefferson and one of the great success stories of his life.” Beautiful, informative, inspiring, this 228-page book is an easy read, so easy in fact that I read it to Sonia in just two days as she lay convalescing in bed, but snuggled up next to her, so she could enjoy all 200 of the beautiful color pictures of the garden. Sadly, it ended all too quickly, but since our family had the privilege of walking through Monticello’s garden overlooking the beautiful rolling Piedmont Virginia countryside, Jon and I are presenting a copy of this book to each of the children for Christmas, as a remembrance of our visit there.


(Please be warned to skip over parts of the section on tomatoes as it references inappropriate folklore.)