Get Growing: Thomas Jefferson’s love for gardening helps define him

Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2015

Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener but he was more interested in scientific experiments than in spectacular successes.

That was one of the facts about our third president that Peter Hatch, head gardener at Monticello for 35 years, shared with an audience of about 100 people at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge last Saturday.

Jefferson loved to sow vegetable seeds, Hatch said, especially peas, and he loved to bring them to the dining table. He was less involved in daily maintenance and lacked access to irrigation, one reason perhaps that he endured many failures.

Jefferson was fascinated by vegetables and fruits grown in different countries and different areas of America. He sent Lewis and Clark on an expedition to discover plants of the Northwest. They brought back seeds of Mandan Red Corn that matures in just 40 days and Jefferson sowed seed at Monticello. He grew many varieties of turnip and loved salsify or oyster plant, which is similar in growth habit to parsnips.

He also was convinced that sesame oil was better than olive oil for cooking and grew dozens of sesame plants in hopes of creating an American sesame oil industry. It was one of his failures, although sesame plants are still grown at Monticello and you can buy the seed from the nonprofit organization (

Hatch said one of the aims of the restored vegetable garden at Monticello is to provide heirloom seeds for home gardeners. They prepare 50,000 packets of seed each year. In addition to sesame seeds, you can purchase ‘Champion of England’ peas (which are also grown in Amherst at the University of Massachusetts Renaissance Center garden), ‘Dutch Brown’ lettuce and ‘Tennis Ball’ lettuce, two of Jefferson’s favorites, and the deeply lobed tomato varieties ‘Costoluto’ and ‘Purple Calabash’ that Jefferson grew 200 years ago.

Jefferson grew plants that originated in Connecticut like ‘Red Wethersfield’ onion and in the deep South like ‘Texas Bird’ pepper as well as ‘Cow’s Horn’ okra brought by slaves from Africa. Jefferson’s garden was “an Ellis Island of plants,” Hatch said.

Slaves were essential to the creation and maintenance of the Monticello gardens, orchards and forests. The 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden is a terrace carved from the hillside by a team of slaves by hard labor. Not only did slaves work in the Jefferson family gardens, they also tended their own small vegetable plots and each Sunday sold some of their produce to the Jeffersons.

Thomas Jefferson’s grand-daughter kept meticulous records of these purchases. Jefferson himself was “an almost obsessive record keeper,” Hatch said. Luckily those records were available to Hatch in restoring the garden. Jefferson listed his plants by their use: roots, leaves, fruits. In 1809, his first year back at Monticello after his presidency, Jefferson recorded 47 vegetable varieties in the new garden. He also recorded many failures that year.

Jefferson realized that well-grown plants in good soil can better withstand insect and disease onslaughts. He told his grand-daughter that they must add manure to the garden every year to improve the red clay that was high in nutrients but of terrible texture.

The Monticello garden benefitted from the microclimate created by the protection of the hillside, Hatch said. There was seldom frost before December and damaging late spring frosts were rare.

Jefferson was a true Renaissance man of his era. He was an architect, a surveyor, a classicist, a musician, and an anthropologist.

“Few topics tell us more about Thomas Jefferson than gardening,” Hatch said. Jefferson spent his “retirement” years reveling in his garden and famously said when he was in his 80s “But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Hatch was selling and signing his excellent book, “A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.” I reviewed it last year very favorably and heartily recommend it as winter reading and inspiration for your own vegetable garden.

WINTER GARDENING: Daniel Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill offers a workshop Saturday from 1 to 3:30 p.m. on “Winter Gardening with Hoops.” The program includes a lecture in the farmhouse followed by a demonstration in the field and farm snacks. The suggested donation is $25. RSVP by phone, 863-8696 or email

WOODY PLANTS: Adam Wheeler of the famous Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut, will offer a workshop on “Making More Plants: Propagating Your Own Woody Plants” Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. The fee is $40. Register by calling 298-3926 or online at

MUM SHOW: The annual chrysanthemum spectacular at Smith College in Lyman Plant House continues through Nov. 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Fridays. The show includes cascading mums as well as tall standards and traditional plants in pots in a wide range of colors.

VALLEY HOUSES: Normally during the winter I write a twice monthly column, “Valley Houses,” and return to garden columns in the spring. Recently I had eye surgery for a detached retina and cannot drive a car at the moment. So, I am taking a break from “Valley Houses” until I can get myself to interviews. Judith Kelliher will be writing in my place. I will, however, continue writing “Get Growing” and will write the annual “Garden Books for Holiday Giving” column in December since I can do that from home. Take care of your eyes.


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