In April, my family and I visited Monticello. Our purpose wasn’t really to see the house, an icon of early classic revival style, but to spend time in the vegetable garden. My uncle, Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds and reviver of Jefferson’s esteemed garden, is retiring in June after 35 years. I wanted my family to explore it with him before his departure.
The garden is on a southeastern slope below the house. Rows of tennis ball lettuce grow on a terrace overlooking rolling hills. Asparagus stands tall at the western end of the garden. Lines of spinach, hanging onions, and turnip beets ripen in the sun as a harlequin bug drinks dew from a cabbage plant.
“It was an Ellis Island of vegetables,” said Uncle Peter on a quiet and sunny day. In 1800s Virginia, people were planting what they knew from Europe—cool season crops. Jefferson introduced species from warmer climates from all over the world. His experimental garden produced tomatoes, sesame, cayenne pepper, and chickpeas to name a few crops. According to Peter’s new book, “A Rich Spot of Earth”—Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello, Jefferson didn’t introduce any “specific vegetable into American gardens,” but his garden showed his southern neighbors and countless visitors what was possible.
Over Jefferson’s fifty-six years at Monticello, the garden grew 330 varieties of 99 species of vegetables and herbs. Today’s garden is interpretative and planted more intensively with about 40 to 50 varieties of vegetables at a time in a pattern that a rototiller can maneuver around.
Jefferson’s idea for the garden came out of his rejection of an old world kitchen garden, which used hot beds and required intensive care. “The genius of Jefferson’s garden,” said my uncle, “was the way he laid out this microclimate to capture the warmth of the sun.” The exposure to the southeast and the heat trap caused by the terracing allowed for an unfussy garden that still produced “asparagus in December and melons in April,” Peter said. In other words, it was one big hot bed.
My favorite vegetable is the sea kale, at about the midpoint of the garden. It is a cabbage-like plant and native to the English seashore. At home in England, as its leaves start to unfurl in the spring, the winds cover it in sand. This coating enhances the flavor (“similar to asparagus,” says Peter) by blocking the chlorophyll and blanching the leaves leaving them virtually colorless and ethereal-looking. To recreate this blanching at Monticello, far from the sea, the plants are covered with clay pots in the winter months allowing the flavors to mellow and the color to be bleached out. The pots are removed when the plant reaches a mature height.
Jefferson was an eager herbivore. He was not a vegetarian. But, more then 190 years before Michael Pollan in Food Rules suggested meat be a side dish not the main course, Jefferson wrote “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that…as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet,” according to Peter’s book.
Jefferson started the garden in 1774 when he was 31 years old. But it was his retirement years from ages 67 to 83, when he spent the most time there. His favorite vegetable, says Peter, was the garden pea. The garden has an abundant patch, close to the sea kale. It’s debatable whether Jefferson liked the peas for their taste or for the annual pea contest that, according to my uncle, “he always lost.” No matter what he tried, his neighbors’ peas harvested earlier then his. Maybe if he had entered the tendrils, the delicate, curly sprig at the top of the plant, he would have had better luck. Alice Waters, Slow Food Nation’s founder and chef of Chez Panisse, had just picked a bunch of tendrils earlier in the day for a Monticello benefit she was cooking for the next night. “Jefferson has always been a hero of mine,” she told me later at a book-signing.
And it’s no wonder. Like Waters, Jefferson was a locavore and an organic gardener. Of course, he didn’t have any alternatives in the early 1800s. Way before “sustainable” and “composting” were buzzwords, Jefferson believed if your plants are in healthy soil they would “bid defiance” and fend off bugs and disease. He believed in the balance between wildness and cultivation, according to Peter. It should not be war in the garden against the bugs.
In fact, he and the other founding fathers—Washington, Adams, and Madison—were big advocates of composting. According to Andrea Wulf’s book, Founding Gardeners, the four of them were concerned with declining garden yields and attributed it to lack of manuring. Any organic gardening book today suggests that layering of this organic matter not only fertilizes the soil but also foils the bugs.
So much is known about Jefferson’s vegetable garden because Jefferson was an obsessive record keeper. In his Garden Book, housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society, he included his own observations as well as information he gathered from neighbors. This “orderly, methodical, meticulous record in precise and careful handwriting I associate with a scientific mind. For a person who doesn’t give away too much about his inner self, we benefit from all this information he gathered,” said Peter Drummey, the Stephen T. Riley Librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
This discipline and thoroughness in the garden carried over to the seeds. Jefferson was a seed saver. Once collected, dried, and preserved, he would give the seeds to his friends or store for later use. Monticello continues this tradition today at its Center for Historic Plants housed on an adjacent property that Jefferson owned, Tufton Farm. Here gardeners preserve and package seeds of plants that Jefferson grew or other varieties that were common in the 19th century. No sea kale, however, because “the seeds don’t germinate well,” said my uncle.
One seed that is for sale is the Whippoorwill Cowpea, also known as a crowder pea. These were not visible in the garden yet because they love the heat and humidity of the summertime. They’re like a black-eyed pea, filled with protein, and Peter boils them for hours to make gravy. They are great for the garden because they cover the ground and are nitrogen fixers, meaning they release nitrogen when they decompose leaving healthier soil. “If I had one vegetable to take to a dessert island, it would be the crowder pea,” said Peter.
Across a dirt path from the sea kale, there is an abundance of radiant scotch kale. We harvest enough for salad for nine. Later that evening, we eat it raw with Brussels sprouts and almonds cured in lemon vinaigrette. The taste is truly revolutionary. Who knew kale could be so yummy.