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Monday, July 1, 2013

Inside Jefferson's Head - A Visit to Monticello

I was lucky to visit Monticello on our recent Colonial Garden Tour.  It was raining that day but the view was still magnificent and we were able to go through the house and gardens.

Thomas Jefferson has always fascinated me.  How can one guy be so talented?  Land owner, architect, scholar, inventor of the United States of America, founder of a university, President - a complete over achiever.  What kind of person was he?  I was sure that the key to him must lie at his home in Monticello.

And so it did.  I came away from Jefferson's home with an impression of a fussy, animated, brilliant, exacting, tour de force of a person.  From the books to the clocks, the wall paper, the design of the windows, to the exact measurements for his cubby hole bed and his thousand foot vegetable garden, I started to understand - and relate to this man.

That Jefferson was an intellect, it was plain for anyone to see.  His house reflected his fascination with design and gadgets, and if he were alive today he would have more twitter followers than Lady Gaga.  His gardens had the same sort of obsessive approach.  Everything was laid out to specific plan and placed just so.  The thousand foot restored vegetable garden and orchard had the same sort of precision - and if it had a sound track it would be the mechanical sounds of a Bach concerto.

The views are stunning.  The house sits on top a fairly good sized hill and you can see the Virginia landscape stretch away before you.  I have never seen such huge hardwood trees - so big that they rival my beloved Pacific Northwest Douglas Firs in enormity. This place will steal your heart for sure and I can understand why he loved it so much.

But as a gardener - I find Jefferson lacking.  And I think the reason is that he was too much into the scholarship and not enough into the real production of a garden.  This is a weakness that I share with Mr Jefferson - and rather than be inspired, like I was at Mount Vernon, I came away duly chastised with what could have done better.

Jefferson kept very detailed records - which is why the restoration of his garden was done so well by Peter Hatch and the large extended team of plantsmen and historians. (Please pick up " A Rich Spot of Earth" by Peter - excellent book.)  The garden today reflects Jefferson's zeal with trying out new plants and the newer types of vegetables his African slaves grew (okra, gherkins, squash, and even tomatoes.)  This was pretty revolutionary during his time since European vegetables dominated the dinner plate.  It is laid out in a long terrace with the parade of vegetables dutifully marching and never straying out of line.  There is nothing interesting about how the plants were cultivated and no hint of soil improvement or irrigation techniques.  I was so uninspired that I didn't take a single photograph of it.

Of course, this might say more about me than Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden.

What I do greatly appreciate about him is his pursuit of plant varieties and zone pushing.  I love that he cultivated a community of gardeners and enthusiastically traded seed and plants with just about everyone he met.  He kept a garden journal and his garden calendar got published in the local agriculture magazine.  In a way, he was acting like a Agricultural College Extension agent - with Monticello functioning very much as an Agricultural Experiment station.  Quite fitting considering the garden tour I was on included Doug Welsh from Texas A&M and a bunch more Master Gardeners.  Another achievement for Mr. Jefferson - America's first Horticulture Extension agent.  I like that.


  1. It's been so long since I"ve been to Monticello, I would really like to go back again in the future. Of course, I'd have to re-read "Founding Gardeners" again. Maybe that will be the tour I'll try to do one day - Peacefield, Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Montpelier (of course I've been to Peacefield and Mt. Vernon within the last 5 years so maybe I don't need to go back to those places...)

    1. Thanks Katina, yes I need to read Founding Gardeners. They really were amazing men on so many levels.