Plant a Jeffersonian Garden

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed spending his spare time among the fruits and vegetables. You can apply his principles to create your own backyard paradise.

| Winter 2017-2018

  • The garden pavilion at Monticello was designed and built by Thomas Jefferson.
    Photo by Flickr/Ben Townsend
  • The Monticello gardens included a south-facing vineyard.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Jefferson used many tools to change growing conditions for experimenting.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Keep Jefferson's principles in mind when planting a garden.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • A small area can yield plenty of fresh produce. Grow several types of leafy greens to determine the best performers in your area.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Jefferson experimented with cultivars from all over the world. You, too, can experiment with exotic vegetables, such as these 'Purple Peruvian' fingerling potatoes.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • The Monticello gardens are undeniably beautiful. Jefferson enjoyed spending time there. You can apply his principles to create your own backyard paradise.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Jefferson loved gadgets, including this pocket notebook with pages carved from wafers of ivory.
    Photo by Monticello/Edward Owen
  • Use hoop houses and raised beds to change growing conditions and create microclimates to better suit certain vegetable cultivars.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Find microclimates in your garden. Jefferson planted his vineyard on a south-facing slope to take advantage of the Mediterranean-like microclimate.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Cy Photography

Do just a little digging into the history of American gardening, and you’ll soon discover Thomas Jefferson’s deep love of horticulture. A favorite quote among those of us with dirt under our nails is, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” I’d bet most gardeners feel the same way  —  there’s always more to learn.

If you spend any time at all reading about Jefferson’s gardening habits, or even visiting his hilltop plantation, Monticello, you’ll want to follow in the footsteps of this Founding Father and third president of the United States. While I wouldn’t recommend attempting to level a mountaintop to create a 1,000-foot-long garden terrace, you can garden in his spirit. Plenty of Jefferson’s ideas will translate well to your backyard.

Heart of a Nation

What does it mean to garden in Jefferson’s spirit? He believed, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” (While it’s hard to deny Jefferson’s enthusiasm for green and growing things, he didn’t single-handedly maintain the Monticello plots, and when he gardened, it was of his own free will. Enslaved African Americans tilled the soil, planted, and handled many daily tasks.) Gardening in Jefferson’s spirit is as simple as adopting his gardening practices and principles in your own “rich spot of earth,” as he romanticized in a letter to Charles Willson Peale, longing for “a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market.” Your Jeffersonian garden can be as basic or as grand as you choose to make it. You’ll probably discover you’ve been practicing a few of his ideas already.

Thomas Jefferson believed in an agricultural future for the United States. He even went so far as to argue that the United State’s representatives to the people should be “farmers whose interests are entirely agricultural. Such men are the true representatives of the great American interest, and are alone to be relied on for expressing the proper American sentiments.”

What to Try

So where do you start? Grow, wherever you are. At one point in his career, Jefferson lived in a Philadelphia apartment, away from his beloved Monticello. While in the city, he grew pots of rice on a windowsill. The perfect situation will present itself if you create it. Plant some herbs in a window box if you must, or grow tomatoes in a bucket. You might be surprised at what you learn: Eggplants make beautiful specimen plants in a flower garden, and morning glories can quickly hide an ugly chain-link fence.

Take a chance on something seemingly impossible. American gardening in Jefferson’s day was a brave new world; no one really knew what was possible. The assumption was that what grew in Great Britain would grow the same in the United States. Jefferson pushed the envelope in Virginia, planting French wine grapes, Turkish asparagus, and New England sugar maples. Some of these experiments worked, but others didn’t. Push your own envelope: Grow figs in Boston, sweet corn in Phoenix, or melons in Tillamook. Take a chance on something that isn’t traditionally grown in your area. Success may require learning a few tricks, such as planting against a south-facing wall or near the outflow of a rain gutter.

12/21/2017 9:57:20 AM

Living in Virginia, I have been lucky enough to have visited Monticello numerous times and have always been fascinated by his gardens. Oh if only I had that much room to garden! However, I do not have a mountain top or a 1,000 ft garden, but I make the best use I can of a back yard and a side yard full of raised beds and have raised some of the same seeds Jefferson grew at Monticello. The most striking one I have grown is the Cherokee Purple tomato which is a big favorite in my family. To compare, I also grew the Russian tomato, Black Krim. It was a happy comparison because both tomato varieties grow well in Virginia and produce excellent tomatoes. Isn't it wonderful when the products of an experiment both turn out to be wonderful? This year I will plant many old favorites, but also I have been gleaniing the garden catalogs and found some new varieties I want to try. In addition to my raised beds, my husband has been generous enough to build many self-watering containers for me utilizing large rubbermaid containers or double 10 gallon buckets. This expands my plantings possibilities as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant all grow well in these self-watering containers. We started out using Ed Smith's directions for the self-watering containers and have since modified these. They work so well and the containers last for a good number of succeding years makers there cost mininal. We have been using some of these containers for around 4 years. We did find that other brands of big plastic containers did not last long and thus were not worth the costs. We score a great buy on 4" plastic pipe on Craigslist making all of this project very cost effective. I would encourage anyone to try these containers. They can be put anywhere you can find sun.



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