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Janice Peterson: Thomas Jefferson's garden is a sight to behold

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Janice Peterson
May 20, 2014

Last summer my husband and I spent a long weekend in Virginia to visit Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson. Specifically we went to see the kitchen garden. The previous winter I had read “A Rich Spot of Earth” by Peter Hatch, former Director of Gardens at Monticello, which describes the renovation and history of Jefferson's garden. I must have driven my husband nuts because he eventually decided we needed to see Monticello for ourselves.

Even after Thomas Jefferson served as our third president he listed his occupation as “farmer”, the vocation he most identified with. At a time when most colonists had typical English-style gardens (i.e. lots of root crops) Jefferson was experimenting with new and wondrous vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, okra, lima beans, and peppers. He even grew plants that were brought back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

My husband and I signed up for the “Revolutionary Garden Tour” at Monticello. The $42 price tag gave us a two-hour guided tour of Jefferson's amazing 1000 foot long terraced vegetable garden, a meet and greet with the head gardener, vegetable tasting, a house tour and time to wander the grounds on our own. The gardens are planted with authentic varieties from Jefferson's time. Our guide was fantastic and I was in total geek-mode as I tried to absorb it all.

Apparently Thomas Jefferson never met a vegetable he didn't like. He eventually grew over 330 different vegetable and herb varieties. He adored salads. He even grew sesame for oil to make his own salad dressing. He once said, “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that … as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet”.

He divided his garden into 24 rectangles and originally organized them into sections labelled “fruits”, “roots” and “leaves” depending on the plant part that was eaten, a fussy arrangement he later abandoned. Jefferson embraced the concept of ferme ornée, an ornamental farm that was both beautiful and productive. He often planted vegetables near each other in order to make attractive compositions, like bordering tomatoes plants with okra, planting alternating rows of white, purple and green broccoli, and planting arbors with scarlet runner bean.

The reconstruction of the Monticello vegetable garden is amazing and well worth the trip out to Virginia. Then again, what if a Jefferson-inspired garden could be created right here in Janesville—one that demonstrated his love of gardening, his awe of nature and his willingness to experiment with new and unusual plants? More on that later!



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