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"Attending to My Farm"

The Garden Pavilion next to Monticello's Vegetable GardenAfter inspecting the shops on Mulberry Row, Jefferson might have toured his gardens and farms.

The vegetable and fruit gardens lay just south of Mulberry Row and were surrounded by a ten-foot high wooden (or "paling") fence. Designed to keep deer and other foragers out, the boards were placed "so near as not to let even a young hare in." On at least one occasion, however, the fence failed -- rivals of Jefferson's grandson broke in and, in the words of the plantation overseer, "did a great deal of damage" while pelting each other with unripe apples and peaches. Today, a small segment of the fence has been recreated.

A "Hanging Garden"

The 1000-foot-long vegetable garden was carved into the protected south side of Monticello Mountain. The terraced beds were supported by a massive stone wall, so that one visitor described it as a "hanging garden." The methodical Jefferson divided the garden into twenty-four "squares," or growing plots, arranged according to which part of the plant was harvested -- whether "fruits" (tomatoes, beans), "roots" (beets, carrots), or "leaves" (lettuce, cabbage).

Bean Arbor next to Monticello's Vegetable Garden

Ferme Ornee

Jefferson also ordered the landscape to create a "ferme ornée," or ornamental farm, combining function and beauty. For instance, he discussed planting an arbor of different shades of the scarlet runner bean; arranged adjacent rows of purple, white, and green sprouting broccoli; and planted cherry trees along the "long, grass walk" of the garden to provide blossoms and shade. In addition to the plantings, Jefferson also designed a pavilion to overlook the gardens and the majestic view from the mountaintop, and constructed a series of four circuitous roads, or Roundabouts, that provided access to his fields and offered scenic carriage rides.

Lettuce growing in Monticello's Vegetable Garden

The Scientific Gardener

Tended by elderly slaves (dubbed the "veteran aids") under Jefferson's supervision, the garden served as both a source of food for Jefferson's family and a kind of laboratory where Jefferson experimented with 330 varieties of more than seventy species of vegetables from around the world. Plants in the garden included squash and broccoli imported from Italy; beans and salsify collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, figs from France, and peppers from Mexico. Jefferson documented his successes and failures in his Garden Book, noting, for instance the dates when seeds were planted, when leaves appeared, and when their fruits came "to table." He applied his analytical mindset to gardening, writing that "I am curious to select one or two of the best species or variety of every garden vegetable, and to reject all others."

Peaches

The Fruitery

Jefferson applied this same philosophy to the orchards and vineyard, which lay further down the south slope of the mountain. In addition to growing hardier apples, peaches, and cherries, Jefferson experimented with harder-to-grow pears, plums, almonds, and apricots, at which he succeeded only rarely. Jefferson also planted "berry squares" for currants, gooseberries, and raspberries, and beds for strawberries and figs. He noted his favorites of each fruit, declaring, for instance, that the Carnation cherry was "so superior to all others that no other deserves the name of cherry."

The Vineyard

Similarly, Jefferson experimented with a variety of old and new world grape vines. Jefferson believed that his native land had the "soil, aspect, and climate of the best wine countries" and that "We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good." Though he aspired to make a Monticello-grown wine, his continual replanting of the vineyards suggests a losing struggle with grape cultivation. Many of his imported vines were probably dead on arrival, others were not planted properly, and some European vines were virtually impossible to grow in America before the development of modern pesticides. Nonetheless, Jefferson searched for native vines as an alternative, supported others' efforts, and amassed an impressive collection of wines from around the world.

Touring the Farm on Horseback

Following his inspection of the vegetable and fruit gardens, Jefferson would likely mount a horse and visit his three outlying quarters farms (Lego, Shadwell, and Tufton), which covered approximately 5,000 acres. In the fields, he might check on the cutting of clover, the clearing of land for the fall grain planting, and the threshing of the June wheat crop. Jefferson was "attached to horticulture by inclination" and believed that "those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." He applied his love of good design to agriculture by innovating a portable version of the Scottish threshing machine. In addition, he received an award from the French Society of Agriculture for his invention of a plow moldboard that was, he claimed, "mathematically demonstrated to be perfect."

Of his daily inspections, Jefferson wrote: "From breakfast, or noon at the latest, to dinner, I am mostly on horseback, Attending to My Farm or other concerns, which I find healthful to my body, mind, and affairs." Towards the end of his life, Jefferson noted that though he was "too feeble, indeed, to walk much," he rode "without fatigue six or eight miles a day, and sometimes thirty or forty."

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Image Credits

  • Vegetable Gardens with Garden Pavilion.
  • Bean Arbor in the Vegetable Garden.
  • Tennis-ball lettuce. Photograph by Skip Johns.
  • Peaches in orchard. Photograph by Skip Johns.

Discussion

says

Admitting some bias, I think Jefferson must have loved his gardens above all things at Monticello. The gardens are also unique among the preservation efforts at Monticello, in that we can still experience them in the way that Jefferson did. We can't lie on his bed or sit behind his desk. We can't relax in his study and thumb his books. But, we can stoop to smell the roses he loved. We can sit on the lawn and watch children run about and note how the tomatoes are ripening. We see the seasons sweep over the small mountain, not in angled shadows, but through harvest and fading blooms soon replaced by another. The Monticello gardeners must have one of the coolest jobs in the world and I think Mr. Jefferson would be very pleased to see his garden grow.

says

Again, Cinder’s work is terrific. I loved her lectures on a day in the life of Thomas Jefferson and glad that material has been transcribed here

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