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There were two types of wooden fences[1] used at Monticello: the post-and-rail and the paling fence that was erected around the Vegetable Garden in 1809.[2] Jefferson considered the construction of wooden fences "great & perishable work"[3] and, in one instance, substituted rows of peach trees for them;[4] in others he no doubt reverted to the free-stone wall. Yet, according to Garden and Farm Book entries, he never ceased using wooden fences for separating his farm fields. Live fences were introduced in 1805 to surround the orchards.[5] Stone fences were utilized for some enclosures, particularly around the earliest vegetable garden. Jefferson described plans for a stone wall in 1778: "...dry stone...23.I. thick at bottom, 19 I. thick at the top & 4 f. 3 I. high..."[6] In the semi-oval shrubbery circle on the East Front, an iron chain was used and, at least in one instance, he used a ha! ha!.[7]

Paling Fences

This type of fence completely encircled the Vegetable Garden and Orchard. It was ten feet high with pales 5' 3" long and 5" to 7" wide which were "dubbed on the middle rail like a clapboard." The posts were locust and twelve feet high, sunk 2 1/2' into the ground. Rails were made of heart of poplar or pine, as both trees grew abundantly on the mountain. This fence was begun in 1808 by a Mr. Watkins and completed about 1809. Nothing of the original fence survived into modern times; a reconstruction of one section was erected based on Jefferson's specifications.

Live Fences

The idea of "live" fences for Monticello must have occurred to Jefferson numerous times before he introduced them in 1805.[8] The reason for his failure to do so sooner was probably the lack of a hardy plant of a suitable size and strength which would grow at Monticello.[9] Thomas Main, a Georgetown nurseryman, must be credited with convincing Jefferson that the Washington Thorn - which grew wild in the environs of the Federal City - would meet the conditions on the mountain.[10] Joseph Dougherty, Jefferson's factor in Washington, wrote him in March 1805 that he had procured 4,000 plants from Main and that they had been dispatched to Monticello on March 22nd. These probably went into the South Thorn Hedge which encircled the South Orchard and Vegetable Garden.[11] Extensive plantings followed and by 1809 these hedges were established firmly enough to be shown as separate entities on a survey of that year.[12]

Jefferson directed that there be 6" between plants and no plant was to be any closer to a road than twenty feet;[13] there is no indication as to their height.

These fences must have been a useful adjunct, because Jefferson wrote in 1806:

"As a thorn for hedges nothing has ever been seen comparable to it [Washington Thorn]; certainly no thorn in England which I have ever seen makes a hedge any more to be compared to this than a log hut to a wall of freestone..."[14]

After their firm establishnent the hedges were vigorously maintained, which can be noted by Jefferson's directives to his overseers.[15] Their condition in 1816 was pointed out in a letter to Joseph Cabell, who had inquired as to the best plant for a "live" fence.

"I have extensive hedges of it, which I have too much neglected. The parts well grown appear rather weak against cattle; yet, when full grown will be probably sufficient..."[16]

This is one of the last references to the hedges which, no doubt, were neglected until they finally vanished from the hilltop.


  1. This article is based on "Fences," Monticello Research Report, n.d.
  2. Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Watkins, Monticello, August 22, 1808, in Betts, Garden Book, 377.
  3. Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Washington, January 23, 1801, in PTJ, 32:500. Recipient copy available online from the Library of Congress.
  4. Farm Book>, 38. Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Manuscript available online.
  5. Betts, Garden Book, 299.
  6. Garden Book, 24. Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Manuscript available online.
  7. Reference?
  8. Betts, Garden Book, 299. The plant used was the Crataegus phaenopyrum, or Washington Thorn.
  9. This assumption is not based on a Jefferson notation, but was arrived at after a careful scanning of Betts, who has reproduced much of the material relating to hedges. Also to be noted is the absence of other types of "live" fences in Jefferson's drawings and in his correspondence.
  10. Jefferson and Main were acquainted. Jefferson, no doubt, had been to Main's nursery where he saw the hedge.
  11. The earliest reference in the Garden Book to the South Hedge is in 1806 in a letter to John Freeman on February 7. A plan of the top of the mountain, dated 1806 - probably the enclosure of another letter to Freeman of February 26 - shows the South Hedge. Nothing is shown where the North Hedge appears later. A third letter to Freeman, dated June 28, 1806, informed him that the "thorns on the north hillside were very foul..." Presumably, this was the North Hedge.
  12. The first large purchase was 4,000 plants in 1805; in 1806 10,200 were sent (Betts, p. 316); 4,000 plants were purchased in February, 1807 for $24.00 (Betts, p. 342) and 2000 transplants in November of the same year (Betts, p. 353). There were also a number growing in the Nursery.
  13. For planting instructions, see Main to Jefferson, February 24, 1806 and Jefferson to Freeman, February 26, 1806 (Betts, p . 316).
  14. Jefferson to William Hamilton, March 1 (Betts, p . 365).
  15. 17. See Betts, p. 357.
  16. July 13, 1816. Betts, p. 559.

Further Sources

  • Jefferson Library Information File - Garden Wall


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