Thomas Jefferson, Agriculturalist
I find that the limited number of our flower beds will too much restrain the variety of flowers in which we might wish to indulge, & therefore I have resumed an idea … of a winding walk … with a narrow border of flowers on each side. this would give us abundant room for a great variety.
– Thomas Jefferson to Anne Cary Randolph, June 7, 1807 1
In addition to the obvious accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson–president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, inventor of, among other things, the hideaway bed and a copying machine so he could create multiple copies of his writings at one time, he also cared deeply about agriculture.
At least once a year, every year, when I lived in Virginia, I’d make a trek to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, near Charlottesville, VA. The house itself is beautiful and filled to the brim with Jefferson’s writings, his inventions, and marvelous things given to him during his years of prominence. History vibrates off the walls in the great hall, where people would wait for hours, or sometimes days, for an audience with the man.
But it’s the extensive Monticello gardens where I felt most at home. The rose beds, the kitchen gardens, the herbs, miles of flowers all around, always made me stop and take a minute to smell the roses, as the saying goes. I’d always head home with seeds cultivated from the garden and use them in my own, much less expansive yard. I took an immense pleasure in knowing the flowers in my back yard were grown from the same stock as Thomas Jefferson’s were. Twenty oval flower beds took shape after Jefferson retired from the public eye, each devoted to a different flower, and the Winding Walk defined the West lawn. Most of the flowers, seeds and bulbs were purchased from Bernard McMahon, owner of a nursery in Philadelphia and the subject of a previous post on this blog.
My most recent WIP deals with a fictional young American working for Thomas McMahon, a nursery owner in Philadelphia. Thomas’ father, Bernard, was one of only two nurseries Jefferson trusted with the care and nurturing of the plants and seeds brought back from the west by Lewis and Clarke. My character makes the trip to England to buy rose bushes and purchase the much needed seeds for Mr. Jefferson’s grounds as well as other lesser-known Americans. My days have been filled with learning about the rose beds, vegetable beds and other delights to be found at Monticello.
Jefferson divided his gardens into four unique categories: Flower Gardens, Vegetable Gardens, Fruit Gardens, and the unique features found in the landscape around the grounds. While my favorite is the flower gardens, I did see the wisdom in Mr. Jefferson having such an interest in vegetables and fruits. Since Jefferson had many visitors to Monticello, it was essential that he have sufficient food and drink to entertain his guests. He cultivated 330 varieties of vegetables in a 1,000 foot long terrace garden, which was convenient to the kitchen. His orchards contained 170 different varieties of fruit, including peaches, apples and grapes. In addition, he cultivated orange trees in a greenhouse on the grounds. He kept careful notations about the types of plants used in a comprehensive garden book. McMahon provided product from Europe as well as what he cultivated locally, and fully a quarter of the flowers grown in the Jefferson gardens was native to North America
The flower gardens almost disappeared following Jefferson’s death in 1826, when the grounds and the house fell into disrepair. Fortunately, both have been restored to their original splendor, the grounds by the Garden Club of Virginia, which undertook the task between 1939 and 1941. Jefferson had made sketches of the Winding Walk flowerbeds along the west lawn and the twenty oval beds included there. Many of the bulbs that were planted during Jefferson’s time remained and continued to flower, so an outline of Jefferson’s vision was already in the ground, just waiting to be found again.
With summer just around the corner, gardens all over the country are finally coming to life. It’s a great time to visit Monticello and buy some seeds harvested from the gardens. Be sure to take enough time to tour the grounds and get some inspiration to use in your own backyard.
- Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.