This month on A Rich Spot of Earth, we look at seed sowing, the coming of the new growing season, winter bulbs, nematodes, plants that build soil, plants that spoil soil, and peas, which were arguably Jefferson's favorite vegetable.

Jason Young:

It's February here at Monticello and it's been quite warm out. We've had days in the sixties and touching into the seventies. Nighttime temperatures scarcely fall below 0. There are all kinds of naturalizing bulbs coming up across the mountaintop. The crocuses cover like sheets of light blue sheen across the grass. The Winter Aconite is blooming in the flower beds. in this wonderful golden yellow. And the snow drops are peeking out from underneath shrubs ready to burst forth with their small white flowers. 

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

You’re listening to our second episode of a brand-new podcast!

The theme this week is sowing. That’s sowing with an “o”—as in planting seeds.

We’re incredibly lucky at Monticello to know a lot about seed sowing in Jefferson’s time. That’s because he kept a garden book, or garden diary, for more than 50 years and vegetables are often the major focus. Jefferson noted when seeds were sown and noted how long it took each vegetable to "come to table,”meaning it was ready to eat. Often that diary ramped up in February with the planting of peas.

Jason Young: Peas were kind of a big deal at Monticello. Today, we mostly buy frozen peas in the grocery store. They're available all year round. But for Jefferson, peas were the first fresh green food to emerge from his garden every spring.

Monticello's Vegetable Gardener Michael Tricomi and Curator of Plants Peggy Cornett recently sat down to talk about all things Jefferson and peas. 

Michael Tricomi: Peas are commonly cited as Jefferson's favorite vegetable just because of how often they were planted, the number of varieties that were planted, the attention to detail that was taken when recording their growth. You know, Jefferson recorded when they emerged from the ground, when they started to bloom, when the pods started to form. So all these details just leads one to believe that he really cared for these peas so much.


Peggy Cornett: It just seems to be an entree into the garden in the spring. Jefferson wasn't very fond of cold weather, apparently. And I think just putting seeds in the ground and seeing them emerge, I think just spoke of new life for Jefferson every year.

Michael Tricomi: Yes. Peas definitely heralded spring. It was the first, first thing to be sown many times. And so that means a new garden season is starting.

Jason Young: By the time of his retirement, Jefferson’s vegetable garden was 1,000 feet long and divided into 24 large beds, each a 40 x 40 foot square. He usually devoted the first 5 beds to peas.

Michael Tricomi: Planting peas typically takes place here at Monticello in February, as early as we can. This year has been very warm. And so, actually, this morning, we sowed peas in the garden. The variety was the Marrowfat, which is typically a late blooming, late producing pea.

First, we make sure that our trellis system is up so that the peas have something to climb on. We make sure the soil is well nourished with compost. After that we make furrows, basically just using a garden hoe to make some trenches. Then you would have soaked your peas overnight in order for them to absorb the water and the moisture. And after they've been soaking, you can sow them heavily in your trenches, cover them up by about an inch, and keep them well watered. And usually, in the spring, the rain will typically provide that for you, but just making sure they have enough moisture, so that they can emerge and start climbing that trellis.

And also typically we'll take the late winter prunings from our orchard--we have different types of fruit trees from peaches to apples-- and we'll use prunings to make a trellis for the peas to grow up. The branchy-ness of them helps the tendrils latch on and helps to support them as they grow.

Peggy Cornett: They call them pea sticks, basically but you kind of weave them together.

Michael Tricomi: It needs to be very, very tightly woven so that it doesn't fall apart.

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson never really wrote much about how things were trellised but we do know that that was a very common technique for, growing peas especially. I mean, it's in all the books that Jefferson referenced: pea sticking.

Michael mentioned that he sowed the seeds fairly heavily and I think that's really an important gardening technique especially for peas that are legumes and their roots are nitrogen fixing and they really like to grow all tangled up together. When you see plantings where people have dibbled in peas an inch or two apart, they just never do as well as if you just run them in heavily in a trench.

Michael Tricomi: Exactly. We aim for a wall of peas when we sow them.

Jason Young: Peggy mentioned two things that might need explaining: peas are legumes and they're quote unquote "nitrogen fixing."

Michael Tricomi: So a legume is a type of plant that typically forms a pod. Peas are a really great example. Beans are another one. And their roots add nitrogen back into the soil.

Peggy Cornett: In fact, a lot of times members of the legume family are sowed just to enrich the soil as a cover crop. It's called nitrogen fixing, in other words it's adding nitrogen back to the soil, which is often robbed by crops such as corn, they call them heavy feeders, but they're crops that use a lot of the nutrients in the soil and kind of rob the soil. Clover is an example of a legume that is planted as a cover crop. You can grow a cover crop of clover, and you can just till it in and that will add nitrogen back to the soil.

Michael Tricomi: We grow cover crops in the vegetable garden today. They provide really great benefits for our soil too, adding some good organic matter for our vegetables to grow nice and healthy in the spring and summer.

Jason Young: Nitrogen, by the way, is a major component in chlorophyll, the compound which allows plants to convert sunlight to food. So, nitrogen-rich soil ensures your plants get lots of energy from the sun. There are other reasons to rotate where you plant certain vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Jefferson kept track of all of this in his Garden Book. It's a good idea for home gardeners, too.

Peggy Cornett: Especially crops like tomatoes that can add some diseases into the soil. I mean, you don't want to grow them in the same soil year after year because diseases and insects will build up in that spot.

Michael Tricomi: Tomatoes can be a very finicky type of vegetable to grow, prone to diseases and nematodes all kinds of things. So, yeah, definitely crop rotation is necessary with tomatoes. 

And then you have to look out for the allelopathic vegetables as well. Sunflowers are said to have allelopathic properties, which essentially means they prevent other plants from growing nearby where they are growing. So any kind of sunflower could prevent other plants from doing as well as they normally would.

Peggy Cornett: Well, I mean, people who feed birds, you know, like I do and put sunflower seeds out, it really does inhibit even grass growing underneath where the birds are dropping the hulls on the ground. So it, it's interesting about sunflowers, unfortunately.

Jason Young: A few words of explanation. Did you hear Michael say "nematodes"? Sounds pretty awful and it is. Tomatoes are susceptible to root-knot nematodes, which are microscopic, parasitic roundworms that damage your plants. So rotate your tomatoes!

Allelopathic is another term Michael and Peggy mentioned. It refers to plants that give off chemicals to prevent surrounding plants from growing. It's a way for the plant to fend off competition in the garden. I hate to say it, but sunflowers are pretty fierce competitors.

Jason Young: But let's get back to peas. Peggy and Michael are going to talk about some different varieties. You can buy seeds for all of the peas they mention--and more--in our shop.

Peggy Cornett: Well, we do grow a lot of heirlooms, some of which Jefferson recorded. The Blue Prussian Pea is one of our heirlooms. When I started here many years ago, that was one of our first varieties to start saving seed. We started out with probably 10 seeds, and then the following year we had, you know, 50. Every year we would add on till we got to the point where we could grow a large enough crop that we can actually make that available to the public. But it's a beautiful pea. It really has a bluish cast to it. 

Michael Tricomi: Another one that we have been growing for many years is the Prince Albert Pea. It's a taller growing pea. And Fearing Burr had described it as being indistinguishable from the Early Frame Pea, which was a pea that Jefferson commonly recorded growing, very popular for that time. 

Peggy Cornett: Michael mentioned Fearing Burr, who published a book in the mid 19th century. And he was trying to really sort out all the synonyms. There were plants that were the same thing, but they had different names.

Michael Tricomi: We have 22 different descriptions. It's hard to distinguish which is which, because sometimes Jefferson recorded them in the Garden book as forward, early dwarf, early, forwardest, forward peas of Marley. So lots of different descriptions, and it's, again, it's hard to distinguish is this the same pea that he's talking about as the previous year or earlier in the year. 

Peggy Cornett: Yeah. Synonyms are really problematic throughout history as far as plant names.

Jason Young: When you hear the terms "forward," "middling," and "late," that refers to when something is planted and harvested. 

Peggy Cornett: Forward means early and that's a term used for a lot of crops, not just peas. So it would be that first pea you would want to put out in the garden because it seems to tolerate cold. And it also comes in quicker. And middling would be a pea you would plant maybe a month later.

Michael Tricomi: But you mentioned you know, the, the forward peas, and that would most likely have been the type of pea that would've been sown earliest to get the first crop of peas that come to table. And one thing to mention would be the pea contests that were commonly . . .

Peggy Cornett: The famous pea contest that Jefferson had with his neighbors around Monticello. It was really a contest to see who could bring the first dish of peas to table, and whoever could do that, would host a dinner for the entire neighborhood. And Jefferson you would think he would win it because the garden at Monticello is so ideally situated. It was situated on the southeast facing slope of the mountain. The hill of the mountain protects it from winds and it's above the low-lying frost. So it's a garden that is kind of a microclimate. It almost is a full zone warmer in that garden. But Jefferson only won it one year. And when he was reminded that it looked like he won the contest, he didn't want to tell the neighbor who used to always win it, George Divers of Farmington, and he said, oh, just let him win it again.

Jason Young: This is what Jefferson had to say when he lost the contest in 1815.

Thomas Jefferson

Let us turn from politics to our neighbors. Your friends, Mr. And Mrs. Divers are in as good health as usual. I dined with them on peas the 29th of April. Here are first peas. Were the 29th of May, which shows the inattention here to the cheapest pleasantest, and most wholesome part of comfortable.

Jason Young: That story of the pea contest brings us, finally, to eating peas.

Michael Tricomi: There are lots of different ways to consume the pod, the pea inside or the tendrils of the plant. There were the sugar peas, the edible podded peas that you could eat. The Marrowfat pea, what's typically done with it is you let it dry out and use it as a soup pea. But you could also eat it fresh if you'd like.

We could maybe illustrate this with sounds of chopping, bubbling soup, cooking over the fire.

In Mary Randolph's cookbook The Virginia Housewife or Methodical Cook published in 1824 she has a recipe for dried pea soup. And the recipe is as follows. You take one quart of split peas or lima beans, which are better, put them in three quarts of very soft water with three onions, chopped up, pepper and salt. Boil them two hours, mash them well, and pass them through a sieve. Return the liquid to the pot. Thicken it with a large piece of butter and flour. Put in some nice slices of nice salt pork and large teaspoon full of celery seed pounded. Boil it till the pork is done and serve it up. Have some toasted bread cut into dice and fried in butter, which must be put in the tureen before you pour in the soup.

Peggy Cornett: Wow, but isn't there another recipe for peas with mint is that with the more fresh peas or green?

Michael Tricomi: Yes. The green pea soup adds a handful of mint into the recipe, which I'm sure would add a nice unique flavor to the soup.

Peggy Cornett: Mary Randolph's cookbook, she was the first cousin of Jefferson and she lived in Richmond, Virginia. And The Virginia Housewife was considered by food historians as the most influential cookbook of the 19th century. And many of the book's recipes are also found among the surviving papers of Jefferson's daughter, Martha and his granddaughters and it's been reprinted many times.

Jason Young: That's it for our discussion of peas. One thing we wanted to add, though, is that Jefferson usually started sowing lettuce in February as well.

Michael Tricomi: So in 1824, Thomas Jefferson wrote into the American Farmer Journal that he recommended a thimble full of lettuce should be sowed every Monday morning from February 1st to September 1st. So that you have a constant supply of lettuce throughout the spring and summer.

Peggy Cornett: Depending on the size of your thimble, but I think it would be hundred or or two

Yeah, easily you know, 100 - 200 seeds. They're very, very small. When you're sowing them, you could sow them very sparsely as you go down your trench or your row because you'll have so many sprouting out that you'll have to thin.

And a technique that is very historical, but people do today is to mix the lettuce seed with radish seed, which is bigger and rounder. And the radish seeds will germinate quicker than the lettuce and it will help to space out the lettuce plants. So when you harvest the radishes, then your lettuce seedlings will be better spaced out in the row.

It's often said that Jefferson, well he wasn't a vegetarian, but he considered meat a condiment to his vegetables. Lettuce was right up there with peas as far as how often it was planted and recorded in the garden. 

Jason Young

Here are a few words from some recent Monticello visitors. Then we'll be right back to talk about work we're doing in the garden right now.

Visitor Spotlight

Lynn Hyde from Ocean City, New Jersey. I came to see how Jefferson lived. I certainly have read about him, and I also wanted to see how the enslaved people were treated. And I read a little bit about Sally Hemmings and I wanted to see that. I'm enjoying my trip immensely. It's very informative and I think the guides are wonderful.

Jason Young: This time of year, as you’ve heard, we’re getting the vegetable garden going.

We're also going out into the woods and harvesting Cedar and Black Locust. Both of these trees are naturally rot resistant and we mill garden posts from them. Black Locust can be put in the ground for up to 30 years without rotting away. Cedar post we use for the trellising of the historic vineyard. We also use it for fencing material.

This is the time of year you want to prune fruit trees. So we're out cutting back the suckering growth from the apples and the peaches. This keeps the tree smaller in size, so the fruit is easy to harvest. A smaller tree also means that more nutrients go into production of fewer but larger, more delicious fruit. 

This next story is about early spring bulbs, which, honestly, don’t need a lot of help from us to do their thing.

Plant Story: Spring Bulbs

Jason Young: You'd be amazed how much color there is on the mountaintop right now. It's a lot more subtle than in April or May, and you have to be in the right place at the right time, but there's actually a lot blooming. Here's our Curator Peggy Cornett discussing early spring bulbs with our Flower Gardener Debbie Donley.

Peggy Cornett: These early spring bulbs that are in the lawns and naturalized at Monticello, they're in flower right now, including this crocus, this little scotch crocus that's kind of a lavender color and, it's been blooming for a couple of weeks at least. And we have no idea where they came from, it could go back to Jefferson.

Naturalizing was really not a gardening technique in Jefferson's day. But it happens because plants have escaped from the beds that they were originally planted in. It became popular during the end of the 19th century. It's kind of the English landscape, the naturalistic landscapes, where they would plant bulbs intentionally and then allow them to keep spreading.

Debbie Donley:

And I've often found too, particularly with the crocus, that they tend to go downhill of where you plant them. And so you might keep that in mind when you're putting your bulbs out. And I don't know if that's from the wind blowing the seed or . . .

Peggy Cornett: Gravity . . .  

Debbie Donley: Gravity but, yes, that tends to happen.

Peggy Cornett: Yeah. That, that's a good observation.

Debbie Donley: And one thing I wanted to mention about the crocus if it's a bright sunny day, the crocus are all in full bloom, wide open. The honeybees are all over them. It's almost magical. There's thousands upon thousands of them. But if it's a cloudy, cold day, they're all closed up. They are a soft, lavender color and you don't even notice they're there. So, if you time it right, then it, it's just a sight to behold.

Peggy Cornett: It's a carpet, isn't it?

Debbie Donley: You almost hate to walk in the grass. There's so many.

Peggy Cornett: Another one that's blooming now too is the Cloth of Gold crocus, which Jefferson also listed, and it’s a bright yellow crocus. And it again, all the crocus really responds to when the sun is out and they just flatten out in the sun.

Jason Young: Have you ever wondered about the difference between narcissus, jonquils, and daffodils? 

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson mentions daffodils, jonquils, and narcissus, but they're all Narcissus.

Debbie Donley: They're all Narcissus.

Peggy Cornett: Narcissus is the genus. And there are many species of Narcissus that have the big trumpet-shape flowers. And the one really old one is called Narcissus pseudonarcissus, which is the Lent Lily. And it's a yellow flower and it blooms early in the spring.

And then there's Narcissus jonquilla, which are jonquils and jonquils have kind of almost rush- like leaves. They're narrow and rounded and so they're pretty easy to identify. And then of course daffodils is just a generic common name for narcissus. 

Debbie Donley: We do try to plant early varieties, meaning early in the season, so that you do get a long bloom time. Michael mentioned how mild the winter has been and we've had a number of them blooming since before Christmas. And so then we do also plant later season varieties so some of our narcissus will be still continuing to bloom on into May. 

Peggy Cornett: And daffodils are one of the bulbs that deer will not eat. In fact, the genus named Narcissus. The root of narcissus is narcotic or narcos. And it's really a poison. And so dear know to avoid it.

Peggy Cornett: I guess the crocus is what people are noticing in the lawn, but the Winter Aconite, the bright yellow, is very showy and it's just getting thicker and thicker in that oval flower bed where they planted it.

Debbie Donley: And so, and it's spilling over the bed

Peggy Cornet: And it will go out in the lawn, right?

Debbie Donley: Absolutely.

Peggy Cornett: It's very happy.

Debbie Donley: They're a little hard to get started. The Winter Aconite bulbs are pretty finicky. They need to be soaked. But once you do get them going, then they start self sowing, dropping their seed, and spreading everywhere. And it's one of the cheeriest things of the landscape because it's this bright yellow in the dead of winter.

Peggy Cornett: And it's not really invasive and it will go completely dormant by the time you're gonna cut your grass.

Debbie Donley: And that's what's called a spring ephemeral. It's there for spring, blooms, makes it seed, drops its seed and then the whole plant dies back. So you don't see it at all.

Peggy Cornett: You have to remember where it is right in your garden. Sometimes you'll stick your trowel in there later, and you say, "Oops. I didn't mean to cut into this patch of bulbs." So that's, that's true with a lot of the spring ephemerals, the wildflowers as well.

Debbie Donley: Like the Virginia Bluebells. We have an incredible stand of Bluebells, "Bluebell Valley." And that is another spring ephemeral that is just spectacular. It's a native plant. And will soon start coming out of the ground. I accidentally dug one up the other day, but I could see that it had its new growth under the ground. But then by summer they're gone.

Peggy Cornett: Totally gone. There's a lot of growth going on underground with the roots and so forth. And so that's why gardeners really get upset when people walk across their beds.

Debbie Donley: I actually ask the guides to remind people to please not walk on the beds because the next season of flowers are right there, ready. If they get walked on, they're not happy and neither is the gardener.

Jason Young: And we want to keep the gardeners happy, right? So try not to walk on the beds and squish those tender, little plants that are working hard to break through the earth any day now.

Join us in March where we’re gonna talk about bareroot plants and lots of other things.

Thank you for listening to “A Rich Spot of Earth,” a Monticello podcast all about gardening and the natural world.

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Narration and stories Jason Young, Peggy Cornett, Michael Tricomi, and Debbie Donley

Jefferson quotes read by Bill Barker

Content and story development by Peggy Cornett, Debbie Donley, Joan Horn, William Snyder, Michael Tricomi, Jason Young, and Chad Wollerton

Direction and editing by Joan Horn

Sound design by Dennis Hysom

Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn

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