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Winter not only brings cold weather to Monticello, it offers two special ways to experience the house and surrounding grounds. Our Holiday Evening Tours present rare opportunities to tour the house after dark and beautifully decorated for the holidays. And our annual Wreath Workshops feature decorations from the natural world around Monticello gathered throughout the year. Featuring Michael Tricomi, Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens; Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants; Debbie Donley, Flower Gardener; and Lou Hatch, Monticello Guide and veteran Wreath Workshop instructor.


Michael Tricomi: It's December at Monticello. It’s chilly outside but it’s a really special time to visit the mountaintop. Visitors have the rare opportunity to tour the house after dark, beautifully decorated for the Christmas holiday. Most of that decoration comes from the natural world around Monticello, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.


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.

Winter Interest

Michael Tricomi: Before we get to Christmas, Curator of Plants Peggy Cornett and Flower Gardener Debbie Donley talked about just a few of the many ways to bring winter interest to the garden.

Debbie Donley: This time of year we're often cleaning the gardens up. It's really good for the wildlife and the insect life if you leave the leaf matter on the ground. It gives them a place to spend the winter.

And also, as you're planning your garden, even in spring, you might think about what will provide good winter interest. A lot of the shrubs look great in the winter. Butterfly bush looks beautiful with snow and ice on it and amsonia . . .

Peggy Cornett: What's nice about the amsonias is in the fall, they turn a golden color. And they'll hold that color for a long time into the season unless you get some crazy weather with ice and everything.

Debbie Donley: What I do with things like amsonia, it'll look great until you have a heavy snowfall and then it might break them. So then I'll start cutting things down. But a lot of them are just loaded with seeds for the birds. So, there's a lot of things you can leave chrysanthemums, asters, blackberry lilies.

Peggy Cornett: That's a great one, yeah.

Debbie Donley: The blackberry lily, the reason it's called that is because the seed pods look like blackberries, and they will hold on during the winter. Not always, especially if you get a snow or ice that breaks them, but they're very dark black. And it's just beautiful with the snow falling.

Peggy Cornett: And the ones we have at Monticello, we believe are descendant from ones that were planted initially in Jefferson's time because it's a plant from China, it's not native, but it is naturalized in our landscape . So they're one of our favorite perennials here at Monticello.

Debbie Donley: We've also talked a little bit about Sternbergia, which is a bulb. It blooms in the fall, a yellow crocus-like bloom, but the foliage, which looks similar to Liriope, stays green all winter long. So it really gives you a nice green that you don't often see during the winter.

Peggy Cornett: The other plant that I really love in the wintertime is the Allegheny Pachysandra, which is native. And as the winter comes on, it gets a blue green color, the leaves. And they get a kind of a blotching on them, silvery color. And they stay that way all winter long. And then in the spring, those leaves will start to die down and the flowers come up in the center of the plant and new fresh leaves will come up then. So it's essentially an evergreen in the landscape.

Celebrating Christmas in Jefferson's time

Michael Tricomi: Jefferson once described Christmas as "the day of greatest mirth and jollity." But celebrations were much more modest back then. For one thing, people didn’t always exchange gifts. If they did, it was usually just one small item.

Historic Interpreter Lou Hatch joined us to talk about Christmas at Monticello.

Lou Hatch: The holiday season was about people getting together and feasting. Jefferson said he preferred vegetables to meat, though one of his favorite dishes was beef bouilly whether he ate that at Christmas time, we don't know.

Usually the curators will set up the dining area, usually the tea room, with some desserts and things, like a plum pudding.

Peggy Cornett: Plum pudding, yeah.

Lou Hatch: There'll be eggnog out and about because we do have a reference at least the grandchildren to eggnog at one point.

Debbie Donley: Did they have candied fruit?

Lou Hatch: Yes, candied fruit certainly would have been in the wonderful glass epergne that they'll be bringing out for the holiday season.


Michael Tricomi: In case you’re wondering, beef bouilli is a French stew. You slowly simmer the meat and serve it in two courses: first, the broth as a soup course and then the meat as a separate entree. Jefferson referred to the holidays as, quote the “season of mince pies,” Mince pie is filled with apples, raisins, beef suet, and spices and that was certainly served as well.

In terms of decorations, a lot of visitors expect the house to be decked out. But in Jefferson's time, decorations were more restrained. Customs like Christmas trees and stockings didn’t become popular until the 1890s.

Lou Hatch: Most of what we know for decorating at that time period would have been just fresh greens cut and probably laid on mantles. There's an image of some little sprigs stuck to windows somehow. And wreaths they've been around for thousands of years with lots of different meanings. In Jefferson's time they might have done it just, a few days before, if anything.

Decorating Today

Michael Tricomi: In recent years, we've also been more thoughtful about the impact the decorations can have on the house. Lou designs our holiday decorations.

Lou Hatch: We used to have wreaths all over the balcony in the entrance hall, fresh flowers and fresh greenery in the house. We don't do that anymore trying to keep out the pests, which can be so damaging to the artifacts in the house.

I use faux greens, but I do get to use dried items as long as they're not like fruit that's been dried. I would love to use actual lemon slices that have dried, but that's still going to attract critters. So the dried flowers, that Debbie is always so generous with, not only do they have to be dried, but then frozen for a certain amount of time to kill whatever bugs. She actually picked some straw flowers for me this year because I requested them. So I have a few of those in an arrangement.

Debbie Donley: I have to say that when you first changed over to the faux greens, there were some of them that I had to actually touch and smell and really look at because they looked so natural and very beautiful. I am not a plastic flower person, but you did a great job finding really nice things that look natural.

Lou Hatch: Thank you, Debbie. It is a challenge. I actually was considering giving up decorating the house because I did not want to work with faux items. And so I came into it kicking and screaming, and, actually, I love it now. It gives me more flexibility.

Debbie Donley: And a lot of it you can probably store year to year so you don't have to start from scratch.

Lou Hatch: Exactly. I do reuse things but I do make them different every year.


Michael Tricomi: The other thing Lou does is makes spectacular wreaths to flank the entrance to the house.  

Peggy Cornett: They're 24-inch straw wreaths and every year they're different as well. And you can use fresh materials, of course, on that. It's all fresh, in fact, because that's on the outside of the house. And they've got okra and artichoke, dried artichoke.

Lou Hatch: Which, again, is really not Jeffersonian, but I try to keep to materials that would have been perhaps available.

Peggy Cornett: Take a lead from Colonial Williamsburg that's done this for years-- and the formal, balanced colonial style of arranging wreath materials and so we try to follow that lead.

Lou Hatch: Thinking about design, you think about not only color, but light and dark, and texture, all kinds of shape. Personally, I love just a plain green wreath with different kinds of greenery on it, but because we have them up for over a month, greens will dry out and they turn brown and start falling off. So, I try to make sure that the wreath is covered with a lot of stuff. That's one of the tricks.

I have to say that one or two of your wreaths after they've been brought down have found their way to my barn. And they live out there all year long, and they're still beautiful.

Thank you. Well, that's one thing the wreath workshops, people say, I still have my wreath up last year that I did.

Debbie Donley: That's what I do. I make one to last for the year, and so I don't put apples on it and things that I know will rot. I put things that will dry gracefully. And it stays up until I put my brand new one up.

Peggy Cornett: Now do you put it outside--the one you make in the wreath workshop?

Debbie Donley: I put it in the dining room, actually. And then I take down the old one and put it on yet another shed.

Peggy Cornett: Well, birds like to make nests in them too.

Lou Hatch: We've had the big ones in the front of the house, not only making nests, but eating the apples.

Peggy Cornett: Yeah, the mockingbirds love those apples.

Lou Hatch: We actually had a gentleman gnawing on something, I can't remember, a few years ago, and it was not something like okra or an apple that was that you would think was edible. It was interesting.

Wreath Workshops

Michael Tricomi: As you heard Debbie and Lou mention, we hold annual wreath-making workshops at Monticello. We’ve been doing it for 37 years now.

Michael Tricomi: One of the things that we wanted to touch on was the year-long process of harvesting material for the wreath workshop. There's lots of things that come from the vegetable garden and from the flower garden that we use in our workshops each year.

bean pods, cotton pods, tobacco, sesame. Okra, there's so many things that come from the gardens, the globe amaranth, the coxcomb that we're, again, we're drying it all out.

There's lots of tansy. Tansy is an herb. It has medicinal properties. It's also a good insect repellent. But it has a really vibrant yellow flower to it and it really dries nicely. Some people don't like to plant tansy because it can spread pretty aggressively, but the way we have it in the garden, we contain it into, designated rows so it doesn't go all over the garden.

Debbie Donley: And we might want to mention the process of drying tansy and globe amaranth. We had a great year of coxcomb. You want to cut them when they're at their prime or even just a little before their prime. And we bundle them up, we use rubber bands, and then suspend them from a rope, a string that goes across the room or shed or something like that. And it takes a number of weeks for them to dry. We pack them away in a box and until it's time for us to use them.

Michael Tricomi: And just a lot of really great wildflowers, milkweed, teasel. There's a lot of different things growing in the fields and meadows that we harvest for the workshop as well.

And a lot of that is a dual purpose, right? So any coxcomb that we do harvest that isn't wreath workshop ready, we can definitely still save the seed from it, right? Or, in the process of drying them out, they drop so much seed.

Debbie Donley: do drop a lot of seeds. So you don't want to dry them over your kitchen counter or places like that, because each plant has literally thousands of seeds. So if people use coxcomb in their wreath, I do tell them often, this was grown in the garden and save that seed because you can grow it yourself in the spring.

And then another thing that we've actually had a generous donation are lotus pods. They look wonderful on a wreath. And catalpa pods and poppy pods. The little field poppies are very small and corn poppies, but you can cluster them together. But then some of the bread poppies are larger pods. Nigella, Love in the Mist makes a lovely dried pod.

Peggy Cornett: I just love cayenne pepper, you can bundle them together like a cluster. They look so pretty on a wreath.

Debbie Donley: The hydrangeas also make a really nice dried flower in a wreath, and it's light, so it adds a lot of contrast to your wreath.

Peggy Cornett: We also use a lot of cones.

Lou Hatch: A lot of cones.

Peggy Cornett: White pine cone, deodar cedar cones.

Debbie Donley: And a lot of those cones you can cut in half and they almost look like little wooden flowers. So you can do additional things other than just hanging a pinecone on your wreath.

Peggy Cornett: Dried artichoke flowers are spectacular. Jefferson grew artichokes in the vegetable garden and he was very proud to be able to bring artichokes to the table because it's a Mediterranean plant that's doesn't like our climate but we let them go ahead and go to flower instead of harvesting them to eat. And it's a thistle like flower and it's beautiful purple. And if you dry them, at the right moment, they will hold their color.

And then, I think okra is also spectacular. And that's another vegetable that was grown in the vegetable garden. The okra dries a beige color and the seams in the okra will split open and they look like white stripes on the pod. They're very pretty, almost wooden. And then you can also split them apart and make them look like a star.

Lou Hatch: Yeah, so like this year, I have all those things Peggy mentioned and a lot of things coming from the garden. So we got the artichoke, okra, tansy, red chili peppers, broom sedge milkweed pods.

Debbie Donley: Globe Amaranth.

Lou Hatch: Sesame.

Peggy Cornett: The sesame is actually in the snapdragon family, but it makes this capsule. It has four chambers, and they crack open and the seeds just fall right out. So you just shake all those sesame seeds out, and then you use the pod on the wreath. You could probably use those indoors as well.

Lou Hatch: Oh, definitely, I do. The arrangement for the dining room, I usually try to stick to food items there, edible things.

Debbie Donley: And I've seen other herbs that they're beautiful in wreaths. Rosemary, same with dried sage and a number of different herbs really look nice.

Michael Tricomi: They last a long time too.

Debbie Donley: You can even make a wreath gift of dried herbs and, add some. peppers and, they can cut right off of it and throw it in the stew pot.

Michael Tricomi: We did that a few years ago. We made an edible wreath. I remember we put cloves of garlic on it, bay leaves, different herbs, peppers, it was pretty interesting to see all that on a wreath.


Michael Tricomi: Those are some of the decorations we use. But the wreath base comes from evergreen trees and shrubs.

Michael Tricomi: We have a whole long list of different greens that we use for wreath making and a lot of different areas where we go to collect some of these greens, right? We have many different holly bushes we can collect from, spruce, Leyland cypress, arborvitae. And a lot of it is found on the Monticello mountaintop. A lot is found on the neighboring Montalto. We have a lot of eastern red cedar over there that we harvest. The female blueberried cedar, as well as the gold tipped male cedar.

Lou Hatch: I know with the boxwood blight a lot of people really are shying away from that. So we make sure that we're harvesting from areas that are free of that. We like to use box as a background because it does stay green much longer. And so that's a good base and usually fill in with other greens on top of that.

Michael Tricomi: We have teams of people that go out and look for these greens and different ornaments to put on wreaths. Usually the folks at Morven Farm have hosted us for boxwood collection over there. And so we'll get a lot of boxwood clippings from them, which is really generous of them.

Debbie Donley: They have beautiful boxwoods And, actually, it does help the plants out because when you're cutting the boxwood, it opens up the bushes so that light and air can get in there. So it really is beneficial to them as well. It really is all hands on deck. How many bags of boxwood do we need, Michael?

Michael Tricomi: It’s typically between 40 and 50.

Debbie Donley: That's garbage bags.

Lou Hatch: Big garbage bags. And get water into them and refresh it periodically with water to try to keep them fresh.

Michael Tricomi: And store it outside.

Lou Hatch: In a cool place.

Michael Tricomi: In a cool place, shaded place, this way they last the longest amount of time.

Michael Tricomi: We find beautiful flowers, pods, seeds, and greens everywhere.

Debbie Donley: We're looking along the roadsides for certain materials. If you're stopping along the road, you certainly would want to ask permission from the landowner. But sumac is one that you'll find just along the roadside or out in the field somewhere. And it's very beautiful. It's a stem with seeds, almost looks like little berries, furry berries. It's a pretty rusty color that looks great at Christmas.

There's a great quote, and let me think about how it goes: “One who truly loves nature sees beauty everywhere. And sees beauty everywhere.” That's Vincent Van Gogh.

Michael Tricomi: That's a pretty apt description of our collecting process, right?

Debbie Donley: It is. You just overlook so many things until you really start looking at them and it gives you a whole different perspective. We're driving down the road. Hey, Magnolia pods!

Michael Tricomi: You look high and low, right? You see what's hanging from the trees, like, oh the cedrella, the little or the chinaberries are way up there. But then, way down here we have . . .

Debbie Donley: Get your pole pruners out.

Michael Tricomi: It really is a year-long process. We're just constantly harvesting for the wreath workshop, drying things, storing things -- And so when you go to make a wreath at one of these wreath workshops, it really is the fruit of this year long process. You're getting that year’s worth of Monticello harvesting to pick from and to put on your wreath.

Lou Hatch: One thing I love about, with this plethora of stuff. At our wreath workshops we get, 25, 30 people coming in for each workshop, and they're all doing different wreaths because of all the different things they can choose from, and just watching people get creative and they can be even using the same ingredients and come up with a totally different type of wreath.

Debbie Donley: We do give instruction, suggestions of things and how to attach different things. We've got people that make it a tradition. There's a woman that her sister lives nearby, so she comes down from Canada every year to participate in the wreath workshop. And there's groupings of girlfriends or husband and wife teams. And we have a wonderful woman that would come with her seeing eye dog and her assistant, and she would make her wreaths by feeling the materials. But it was really interesting to see the wreaths that she would make.

Even people that feel like they're not very creative, they're amazed at what they've done. They're all really thrilled with their wreaths. You never see the same wreath go out, everybody's wreath is different.

Michael Tricomi: That’s it for December--and that also concludes our first year of “A Rich Spot of Earth.” Thank you for listening. We’ll be back in the new year. In the meantime, happy holidays!


Holiday Evening Tours

Join us for the rare opportunity to experience Monticello after dark, decorated with the style of holiday greenery found during Jefferson’s era.

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