Jefferson’s Gardens

Anne Raver of The New York Times takes a stroll through the gardens of Monticello, where director of gardens and grounds Peter Hatch reveals some of Thomas Jefferson’s trial-and-error (and error, and trial, and error) gardening history. The folks at Monticello restored Jefferson’s original 2-acre kitchen garden about thirty years ago, and have returned to some of the former president’s 18th-century techniques for maintaining it (without as much of the error part).

“He was experimental and had a lot of failures,” Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds, said on a recent afternoon, as we stood under a scorching sun in the terraced garden that took seven slaves three years to cut into the hill. “But Jefferson always believed that ‘the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.’ ”

After he left the White House in 1809 and moved to Monticello, his Palladian estate here, Jefferson grew 170 varieties of fruits and 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs, until his death in 1826.

As we walked along the geometric beds — many of them planted in an ancient Roman quincunx pattern — I made notes on the beautiful crops I had never grown. Sea kale, with its great, ruffled blue-green leaves, now full of little round seed pods. Egyptian onions, whose tall green stalks bore quirky hats of tiny seeds and wavy green sprouts. A pre-Columbian tomato called Purple Calabash, whose energetic vines would soon be trained up a cedar trellis made of posts cut from the woods.

Jefferson kept a personal horticultural diary for more than fifty years. Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, which we distribute for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contains a facsimile of his Garden Book, additional letters and other documents, plus commentary from Edwin Morris Betts on Jefferson’s varied approaches to gardening, whether as landscape architect, pleasure gardener, or horticultural scientist. Peter Hatch provides the introduction to the volume. You can browse inside the book via Google Books here.