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.
While you’re at it, make comparisons. Jefferson grew Cherokee, Pawnee, and “sweet or shriveled” corn to compare their performances. Plant some new cultivars along with tried-and-true types to see which will deliver the best results. Even better, try growing the same cultivars in different conditions. Compare particular crops growing in an eastern exposure versus a western exposure. Plant seeds of one cultivar a few weeks earlier than the rest, or a few weeks later. Compare growing in drier soils with growing in wetter ones. Be sure to do this over several years to see what effects weather has on your results. Save seeds from these plants to eventually create locally-adapted strains, but make certain they haven’t cross-pollinated.
This leads us to a very important, very Jeffersonian practice: record keeping. Jefferson kept five different daily logs, four of them being his farm, account, memorandum, and garden books. In the garden book, he made note of planting dates, weather conditions, harvest dates, and crop failures. Armed with this information, gathered over decades, he could puzzle out the most successful planting times according to both date and condition. Keep your own garden log, jotting down dates, notes, and observations, on a daily basis if you can. Include daily high and low temperatures and weather conditions. Your log can be as fancy or as simple as you like. After all, it’s your log. You can also use online digital resources to help you track everything.
After you’ve been keeping your log for a year or so, you’ll know what to expect from your growing season, and you can begin maximizing it. Jefferson placed his vineyard below the south terrace wall to simulate a Mediterranean microclimate. He also instructed his overseer to sow a thimbleful of lettuce seed every week to determine the best time to plant lettuce — no doubt an added bonus would’ve been an extended season of salads. Try planting early crops under floating row covers, succession-planting salad greens, or creating microclimates to make the most of your growing season.
Gadgets can help you extend the season and make gardening easier in general. Jefferson loved his gadgets: his thimble seed measure, his three-legged folding stool, and his pocket notebook with pages carved from wafers of ivory. You, too, should make full use of labor-saving devices. Make them if you can, or buy them if you must. Mount an old mailbox on your garden gate for storing hand tools and grocery bags for quick harvests. Repurpose a garden hose, retired kitchen sink, and shipping pallet to build an outdoor wash station for your root vegetables. If what you need doesn’t exist, invent it.
Of course, after you’ve dreamed up and tested a good idea, you’ll want to share it. Jefferson loved to discuss gardening, whether by writing to correspondents, joining horticultural societies, or sharing new ideas with friends and neighbors. There are lots of ways to get together with other gardeners. Join a garden club, or start one. Find an online gardening forum, such as The Garden Professors, and engage in conversation. Even better, become a Master Gardener. Jefferson would most heartily approve. He used his garden to trial new cultivars so he could make accurate recommendations of what would grow well in Virginia in particular, and in the United States in general.
Joining groups like these will also provide an excellent opportunity to share and trade seeds from around the world. The garden at Monticello featured Mandan corn, Arikara beans, Italian figs, and German “turnip cabbage” (kohlrabi), and Jefferson traded internationally with noted French botanist André Thouin and others. Make trading a ritual. Find some nice, small envelopes for packets — manila coin envelopes serve nicely. Take your time to neatly letter them with seed type, cultivar, and collection date. Use a calligraphy pen to give your handiwork extra flair. Be generous with the seeds you share, and be adventurous with the seeds you accept in trade.
What’s gardening without a little friendly competition? Every year, Jefferson and his Charlottesville gardening friend, George Divers, accepted a challenge to “bring the first peas to table.” The winner took bragging rights for the year, along with the honor of serving those peas to his family at a celebration dinner. (The year Jefferson won, he chose not to tell anyone so that Divers’ winning streak wouldn’t end.) Racing for the first ripe tomato makes a great competition among friends, and many growers take giant vegetables, such as half-ton pumpkins, seriously — very seriously. Join a garden tour schedule and challenge yourself to keep your beds showcase-perfect.
Enjoy the Fruits
Perhaps the most fundamental Jeffersonian principle is simply spending time in your garden. Jefferson made a point of getting out in his garden as much as possible, laying out plots with a theodolite (a type of surveying instrument) and lines, plucking figs, taking notes, and using the garden as his own laboratory. Spend some time in your own garden every day, even if only for a five-minute stroll. Add a park bench along a pathway. Mix some zinnias in with your vegetables to attract bees and other pollinators. Be daring and tuck a few lettuces into a flowerbed. Every time you work in the garden, take a few minutes afterwards to relax and enjoy the visual fruits of your labor, ambling through your paths and aisles. Enjoy your garden.
After leaving the presidency, Jefferson wrote to Étienne Lemaire, his former manager of the presidential household in Washington, D.C., “I am constantly in my garden or farms, as exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors when at Washington, and I find myself infinitely happier in my new mode of life.”
Your Jeffersonian garden doesn’t need to extend 1,000 feet, and no one expects you to create a mini-Monticello in your backyard. Thomas Jefferson’s gardening spirit requires something far removed from strict re-creation, after all. To garden like Jefferson, you’ll need only to try new things, experiment, share, learn, and enjoy.
Most importantly, make your garden a part of you, a part of your life. Do this, and I have no doubt Mr. Jefferson would be proud.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He enjoys researching, gardening, and history, especially when they come together. Like Jefferson, he holds a deep fascination with the natural world, and appreciates Jefferson’s sentiments on gardening culture.