It's October at Monticello, and there’s color everywhere, from the reds, yellows and golds of the fall leaves to the pinks and purples of our tall asters to the oranges and greens of our fall squash.

In this episode of "A Rich Spot of Earth," we talk about some of the most evolutionary complex flowers (asters), a tasty squash that provides more than a gallon of flesh for soups or pudding (the Cushaw), and, of course, the glorious range of colors in our fall foliage. We also have a first report from the fall grape harvest at Jefferson Vineyards, which became part of the Monticello family in early 2023.

Featuring Michael Tricomi, Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens; Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants; Debbie Donley, Flower Gardener; Robert Dowell, Senior Nursery Associate at the Thomas Jefferson Center Historic Plants; and Chris Ritzcovan, Winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards.


Michael Tricomi: It's October at Monticello and there’s color everywhere.

From the mountaintop, there’s fall foliage as far as the eye can see, in hues of burgundy, crimson, amber, and golden yellow. In our flower gardens, the pink and purple asters are six feet tall. And our vegetable garden is brimming with striped and speckled winter squash in shades of orange and green.

We’re going to talk about all of that today—and more!


Michael Tricomi: This is “A Rich Spot of Earth,” a podcast about gardening and the natural world. I’m Michael Tricomi, Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Albemarle County, Virginia.


Michael Tricomi: Recently, I sat down with our Flower Gardner Debbie Donley and Curator of Plants Peggy Cornett to discuss asters. They’re booming now and will continue throughout the entire fall until the first frost. Here’s Debbie describing the New England Aster.

Debbie Donley: They're quite tall. Very beautiful purple with a yellow center. And I cut them back a little bit early in the season, but they're still over my head right now, so I end up staking them and it does help keep them more upright. And they spread quite well. They're actually expanding out of their bed a lot. But they are so beautiful, you see them from the far side of the West Lawn. And they're also next to some goldish colored chrysanthemums, and so the combination of them looks really nice.

Peggy Cornett: Asters are really the most complex of plant evolution because it's a composite flower. And pollinators have evolved with them, and they're usually the last to bloom in the year, so that they're providing nectar late into the season, and so that’s why it’s so important to try and preserve them.

And then, of course, we have what's the plant that causes allergies?

Debbie Donley: Ragweed.

Peggy Cornett: Ragweed is also in the Aster family. People blame Goldenrod as causing allergies, but it's really the ragweed that's blooming right next to it. The reason they don’t cause allergies is because they’re self-pollinating, so it’s not wind-pollinated, which the ragweed is just blowing its pollen in the air all the time and that’s why people are getting allergies from it.

But people are starting to understand that the Goldenrod are not causing allergies and you're starting to see them now in floral arrangements.

Debbie Donley: They're very graceful. The problem with Goldenrod is if you put it in your home garden, be careful because it does spread.

Some other asters we have is the Boltonia.

Peggy Cornett: Oh yeah, that’s a beautiful one.

Debbie Donley:

It's a very soft pink. And then there's the Smooth Aster, which has been blooming for months really, which is very prolific, a little too prolific. But it is a very pretty lavender color.

And then there's the white . . . is it Wood Aster?

Peggy Cornett: White Wood Aster, yes. It grows in shade. It grows here at Monticello in the forest. But it can be quite abundant in your own garden. It seeds itself. It's a little floppy, I think, in the landscape. But I think it's very graceful in a woodland setting. It's lovely.

Michael Tricomi: You notice a lot this time of year, too, garden centers and nurseries--the Chrysanthemum-Aster combination.

Peggy Cornett: These mounded Chrysanthemums are just classic for the fall. Chrysanthemums are quite lovely in the garden and you don’t need to prune them back that hard but again, that’s another one to cut back earlier in the season.

Debbie Donley: Before the 4th of July or they won't bloom. I try and layer them a little bit so that the ones in the front are a little bit shorter than the ones towards the back. But you have to be careful--a lot of the potted chrysanthemums that are for sale don't transplant into the garden very well. So there's different varieties. So if you want it to enjoy in a pot and then put in your garden, you need to make sure you have the right kind.


Michael Tricomi: In the vegetable garden, we've been ripping out summer plants and throwing them on the compost pile. We're replacing them with vegetables that thrive in cooler weather: leafy greens, broccoli and cabbage, and root vegetables, like turnips, beets, and carrots.

We're also harvesting fall vegetables.

Peggy Cornett: The pumpkins and winter squashes are coming in.

Michael Tricomi: Yeah, the Upper Ground Sweet Potato Pumpkin or Sweet Potato Winter Squash-- that's a really tasty winter squash that's period to Jefferson. The green striped Cushaw Squash, which has a long storage period. You can make bread and Debbie's made pudding. It's got a really sweet-tasting flesh.

Debbie Donley: I got actually 23 cups out of one Cushaw.

Peggy Cornett: So you baked it?

Debbie Donley: I roasted it and then I scooped it out. I didn't even puree it or anything. I just left it because it gets pretty soft. And I just measure it in two cup bags and take it out and use it year long. And it makes a pretty mean pumpkin bread too.

Michael Tricomi: And then we're also growing this year the Gede Okosomin winter squash, or the Miami melon or Wabash melon. Jefferson received seeds for this melon, and so we did some research and tracked down which plant he was referring to. And so we've started growing that in the garden this year.

Peggy Cornett: And it's really a squash, like, you think, melon, you think of watermelon or something?

Michael Tricomi: Yes, that's more the European melon, but melon in reference to native crop is a squash. It has origins in the Miami Nation.

Peggy Cornett: Native American?

Michael Tricomi: Yes. And the squash itself, it's an elongated squash, similar to the Georgia Candy Roaster, it's a similar shape and size. And really bright orange skin on the outside. So I'm really interested to see what it's like on the inside after you open it up and try to use it in some different recipes.

Peggy Cornett: Yeah, this is the first year we've grown it. It's pretty, pretty nice looking.

Fall Foliage

Michael Tricomi: Fall is a beautiful time in Virginia because we have so many trees changing colors. Peak leaf season is the end of October / early November, but the leaves actually change over a much longer period. Our horticulturist Robert Dowell joined me and Peggy to explain.

Robert Dowell: It varies with the species of the trees. So already in mid-September, Dogwoods are putting on a pretty serious pink and burgundy blush. It's always fun to just see the progression through the species, starting with the Dogwoods and maybe the Birches, and then it ends up with the Hickories and the Oaks by late November or even early December sometimes.

Peggy Cornett: I love the Hickories. They are so beautiful.

Robert Dowell: The Hickories, they have this kind of reliable golden yellow color. There's many species of Hickory. I think the shag bark hickory is probably the most well-known hickory for people on the East Coast because the bark is so distinctive. But there's several other species of Hickories that can give that nice golden yellow autumn color.

I think I've mentioned before, I have a soft spot for Birches. Birches always have a very lovely yellow color.

You can't talk about fall foliage without Maples. I'm originally from New England, so we live and breathe Maples up there. But there's one tree that's more abundant down in Virginia, which can produce a really beautiful red color that, in my opinion, rivals any Red Maple, and that is the Black Tupelo, the Black Gum tree. If you're looking to put that red tree in your landscape, Red Maples are fine, but diversify your palette with other species and Tupelo is an excellent choice.

Peggy Cornett: Nyssa Sylvatica. Nyssa is “nymph” and sylvatica means “of the forest,” so “nymph of the forest.” I just love the habit of it -- the kind of horizontal branching and the deep red color just knocks you out.

Michael Tricomi: One of my favorite trees on the mountaintop has to be the European Larch, a deciduous conifer.

Peggy Cornett: It's like little needles.

Robert Dowell: But it's very soft, not like many pines. They're very soft to the touch.

Michael Tricomi: You'll see it a lot in the Alps. Really nice golden fall color. And it has this draping effect to it, too, it kind of hangs down.

Peggy Cornett: It's not native, but it's a tree that Jefferson documents having planted in the upper grove. We used to have one from Jefferson's time period until the 1990s, I think, and it finally came down. It's been replaced and the replacement tree is looking quite lovely now. It's starting to make cones.

Michael Tricomi: Yeah, it's really exciting. It's got some good height to it as well. It's grown quite a bit in the last number of years.

Peggy Cornett: One of my favorite trees that we're losing now are the Ash trees. We're treating them so that hopefully we can avoid the demise from the emerald ash borer. They are spectacular trees and massive trees, so we're trying to save some for future generations. The White Ash has gorgeous fall color. It's a combination of yellow and orange and purple.

Robert Dowell: I've seen some that are like a real deep purple.

Peggy Cornett: There's a lot of variation, actually, from year to year, too, same tree.

Robert Dowell: It's the interplay of how moist the summer was, how dry the autumn is. And what produces the best color are sunny days and cool nights. That's why New England is famous for its color because they consistently get those weather patterns every autumn. Virginia, it's quite variable. We can have really brilliant autumns and we can have autumns that are more kind of muggy and lousy.

Sugar Maples

Michael Tricomi: Maple Trees are famous for their scarlet red fall leaves.

In Jefferson's time, abolitionists encouraged people to plant them. They wanted maple syrup to replace cane sugar, which was produced in the West Indies, using slave labor.

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson was attempting this in an experiment at Monticello. We don't believe he ever succeeded. But sugar maple production is actually very successful in western parts of Virginia.

Robert Dowell: Highland County is famous for its annual sugar maple festival.

Peggy Cornett: Every March.

Robert Dowell: Forty gallons of sap will produce one gallon of syrup. These big operations in Vermont and elsewhere up North, it's a serious business. They have thousands of trees they tap, and giant buildings dedicated just to evaporating the sap. Here in Virginia, it's a different story.

Peggy Cornett: Mom and Pop. It doesn't hurt the tree, or does it? I wonder about that.

Robert Dowell: The tree can tolerate it if you don't tap too much from the tree. There's a short window. They actually do it, like, late winter, early spring. And it's only for a few weeks while the sap is flowing in the tree tissues.

In colonial days, they used to use sumac stems as the actual spout, because the pith of the sumac stem is hollow, and that was the little spigot they would tap into the maple tree. Now of course they use plastic and metal spigots on the trees, but historically they used one tree to tap another.

I went to the Sugar Maple Festival in Highland County one year, and I saw, gosh, a sugar maple tree that must have, I'm not exaggerating, had a trunk diameter probably four feet wide. That tree was possibly from the colonial period and they had been tapping it every year, probably for well over a century, and it was still alive. They knew how to do it without killing tree.

Peggy Cornett: They can live a long time. They're not as long-lived as an Oak tree. Oak trees have nice fall color, but it's more subtle.

Robert Dowell: And it comes much later, too. Some oaks won't even color until December.

Peggy Cornett:  Some Oaks will really hold on to their leaves, like Willow Oaks, for example.

Robert Dowell: American Beech is another one in that same family. The Beech family includes the Oaks, the Beeches, the Chestnuts. Beeches, I think, are so beautiful because the trunk itself is very smooth, but the foliage of the Beech will turn this beautiful tannish color and from a distance, the way the light hits it, it almost looks amber. The Beech leaves will persist all the way till spring, so you can be walking through the forest and you can spot the beech trees, because they're the only ones with the leaves still on the tree.

Peggy Cornett: And I guess when the new growth comes on, it pushes out the old leaves.

Robert Dowell: The leaves finally shed off, basically not until spring that happens.

6. Visitor Spotlight

Michael Tricomi: Let's hear from some recent Monticello visitors.

Andrew Pooley:

Hi, my name is Andrew Pooley. I'm from Pennsylvania. It's been beautiful here. The gardens are very impressive. I was a former vegetable farmer, so very cool seeing all the vegetables and all that. We love being here.


Michael Tricomi: This month, Chris Ritzcovan, the Winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards, joined me and Peggy to talk about their fall grape harvest. Part of the Vineyard is located on the same site where Thomas Jefferson’s friend Philip Mazzei grew grapes almost 250 years ago.

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson was described as America's first distinguished viticulturist. In 1807, there was a planting of 287 rooted vines and cuttings of 24 European grape varieties. We don't believe he ever was able to make a Monticello-grown wine, but it was certainly a continual effort to replant the vineyard many times throughout his lifetime at Monticello.

They were trying to grow the European grape, the Vitis vinifera, which is a difficult grape to grow in this country for many reasons.


Michael Tricomi: Climate is one reason that wine grapes can be challenging to grow here in Virginia.

Chris Ritzcovan: Most well-known wine regions are pretty arid in general, and especially during the growing season, and we have a very wet growing season-- rain, essentially, the entire year, and then the threat of hurricanes at the end.

Peggy Cornett: Some years you'll have an ideal late season where you can pick grapes and it's dry, which is what we're experiencing right now. But some years you have a very wet or cool September.

It can delay ripening of the grapes and then also if you think about the analogy I like to give is with tomatoes, when people are trying to vine ripen their tomatoes and then you get hit with a major rainstorm and maybe the skins split, that's another issue that can arise with grapes. That's a vector for disease. Also with that additional water, it dilutes the sugars, the flavors of the wine, so if you have a really wet year, you'll have lower sugar levels.

We're located on the foot of Montalto, which is a little microclimate for us, the way that mountain is positioned. A lot of storms that come in during the growing season get pushed north of us. So I think it stays a little drier. We have less of that extreme weather. The hail that a lot of people see often in the western part of Charlottesville we don't see.

Peggy Cornett: So Montalto is moderating your site?

Chris Ritzcovan: Yes, it does. Totally.

Peggy Cornett: Well, that's helpful.

Chris Ritzcovan: It's nice to have help.

Michael Tricomi: What's the average lifespan of some of those vines? How long do they typically last for?

Chris Ritzcovan: That's a great question that we're still working on. I think we still have vines from the mid-90s, but I think you're looking at 25 years, 25 to 30 years. It really depends on the variety, the site, the location.

We get hit with everything in the mid-Atlantic, right? So we have cold winters that can be minus 5, minus 10, every once in a while. Vinifera does not like that. Some varieties are a little bit more sensitive than others.

Peggy Cornett: A really hard freeze could just kill it all the way to the ground. Is that right?

Chris Ritzcovan: Yeah, it could cause frost damage to the trunks.

Peggy Cornett: Splitting.

Chris Ritzcovan: Gall issues and things like that down the road, yeah.

So far, this growing season, it's been a roller coaster. We had a very cold December, followed by a somewhat warmer late winter, which led to an earlier than normal bug break. And then we had a very wet June and July, so when there's a lot of water, the plants are growing a lot, right? we're always just going through manually trying to restrict growth. Hedge them, remove leaves. So it's just a lot more manual work in the vineyard, but the last couple of months it's been dry, it's been perfect. The last couple of weeks we've had 80 degrees during the day, 60 at night. That diurnal temperature fluctuation is perfect for growing grapes, perfect for ripening.

Peggy Cornett: 2023 might a good vintage, I think.

Chris Ritzcovan: It's looking up. It's a roller coaster. The one thing about Virginia wine, which I feel is the romantic side of it, is that every vintage tells a story. If you have a really hot year, you'll have these really big, more high alcohol, super ripe wines. If you have a more of a wet growing season, the grapes aren't going to be as ripe. And so the flavors might be a little dilute and then there's somewhere in between. So I feel like every year something shines.

Overview of Jefferson Vineyards

Michael Tricomi: We asked Chris to tell us a bit more about the history of Jefferson Vineyards and what kinds of wines they produce.

Chris Ritzcovan: Jefferson Vineyards was founded in 1981. It was originally owned by the Woodward family and passed through three generations of that family. And then we've become part of the foundation as of the beginning of 2023.

It's about a 400-acre estate, with about 22 acres of vines. We grow, I want to say, 12 to 14 varietals. The white grapes that we grow are the ones you see in Virginia. So we grow Chardonnay, we grow Petit Manseng, Viognier. We do have some Riesling, which is challenging for this area. We do have some Pinot Gris, and then I did plant some Gruner Veltliner. And then the reds are the main Bordeaux reds. So we grow Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and we have a little bit of Malbec.

We make about 6000 cases of wine every year. It's Up to 20 different wines. We have sort of our staples that we're known for: that's the Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Meritage, Petit Verdot. Virginia Chardonnay is wonderful. I love it. I think more people should try it. But Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, those are varietals that just don't work here. Even Cabernet Sauvignon needs a really long growing season. And so some years we do have that, some years we don't. So if you have an expectation of what that wine might taste like, you're not always going to get that depending on the vintage.

Peggy Cornett: Do you have a favorite?

Chris Ritzcovan: Well, they're all my babies. We have been growing viognier and making viognier for a long time. I think the cool thing about it is most people don't know what it is and trying a new wine that people haven't heard of or can't even pronounce because it looks like Viognier, but we're in this sweet spot for the climate and for its ripening potential, and it has these really big peach flavors, apricot flavors, these really floral aromatics to it. It's very different from California style. It's very different than in France. But again, they're all my babies. Each year they present themselves differently.

Peggy Cornett: Yeah, I guess like you say, every year is different.

Chris Ritzcovan: Yeah. My prediction for ‘23, I think the reds are going to do really well in general. This nice weather we've had the last few weeks is really going to benefit the late season varietals so that we'll have these bigger, better rounded red wines.

October Activity

Michael Tricomi: Chris walked us through the process of harvesting and fermenting the wine.

Chris Ritzcovan: Harvest usually begins in mid-August. Usually it's the white grapes that come in first. Our Pinot Gris, our Riesling, and then second week in September is maybe when we'll start picking Merlot, and then we'll be picking Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot later, and we usually go through October. It's a seven day week for like two months straight. Grapes don't care if it's the weekend or if it's late or if it's hot.

We have crews come through, pick all the grapes by hand, transfer them into lugs, into larger bins, and then if they're white grapes, go straight in the press. That separates the juice from the skins, right? And then we pump that into tanks, and then transfer that either into barrels or keep it in tanks. So then we start the fermentation. That process can take anywhere from a week to a month, depending on what we're trying to do.

When it comes to red grapes, those are picked. We have a machine to remove the stems from the berries. Then after that we press them off the skin. So you remove all the liquid out, and then you're digging these grape skins out and they go in the press to get the rest of that wine out.

All of the cool parts about wine come from the skin. So that's where the flavor comes from, the aromatics, the color, the tannins, all the nuances that make vinifera grapes so much more complex than cider or apple wine or something like that. It goes into a tank again. We let it settle and then the red wines all age in barrel.

Peggy Cornett: Like an oak barrel?

Chris Ritzcovan: We use American oak, we use French oak, and we use Hungarian oak. And I do have one Acacia barrel, which is a completely different and interesting flavor profile on that.

But the barrels are like the spice rack for the winemaker, so you have American oak is what's used in bourbon, so it has a lot more vanillin compounds in it, so it can be really intense. Sometimes it can be a little bit much. The wood is a lot more porous. So you have oxygen transfer through that oak. It helps soften the flavors. French Oak is a lot tighter grain. You can age longer with less oxygen transfer, less evaporative loss.

Oxygen at this point is not a friend of wine, so we want to keep those barrels full. Keep them topped, they go through a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation. That converts malic acid in wine, which is like the main acid in apples, to lactic acid, which is main acid in dairy. So it makes the wine more stable, but it also gives a more fuller structure to the wine.

Then on top of that you have multiple different toast levels. So these barrels constructed and then put over a fire. And the amount of time that they are on that flame determines the toast level. So if you have a heavy toast barrel, you wouldn't want like a really delicate light bodied wine on that because it's just going to taste like . . .

Peggy Cornett: Toast.

Chris Ritzcovan: Right? And then we reuse these barrels for multiple years. Every time you use it, that toast level is reduced. And I actually like barrels that are a couple of years old. I think it's much more mild, more conducive to the style of wines that we make. Also we have steel age, which are wines that live in tank their entire life. They ferment in tank, they age in tank. It helps retain the crispness of it, and they're like brighter.

We're on a very craft-oriented scale. We have about 250 red barrels in our production, 50 white barrels and I know what's in all of them and what each barrel tastes like.

Michael Tricomi: Jefferson Vineyards is open from 11 to 6 Wednesday through Monday. Please visit! It's a beautiful place to relax and enjoy a glass of wine.

That's it for October. I hope you are getting out in the garden, the woods, the mountains, or a vineyard to enjoy this crisp, clear fall weather. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next month.

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Direction and editing by Joan Horn

Sound design by Dennis Hysom

Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn

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