I’ve been eager to tell you about my recent trip to Monticello, but life has been even more hectic than usual in the last weeks. Preparations for the upcoming tour to England, along with a meeting in Washington, DC, and a Master Gardener jaunt to Raleigh this week, have left little time for contemplation. I’ve finally found a few minutes this afternoon, thank goodness, to make an effort to jot down a couple of quick thoughts.
First, I want to tell you that President Jefferson and I are old friends. As a native Virginian who was born just a stone’s throw from Williamsburg, where Jefferson was educated at the College of William and Mary, I’ve always nurtured an interest in history and the early U.S. Presidents from my home state: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.
More significant to my regard for Jefferson, however, are the three years lived in Charlottesville with my husband, Tim, while he attended the University of Virginia School of Law. As poor, and I mean seriously poor, newlyweds, we took advantage of Monticello’s “good neighbor” policy of free admission for city and county residents, spending many Sunday afternoons exploring the nooks and crannies of Jefferson’s home and garden.
But that was thirty long years ago and much has changed. For one, Tim and I are not surviving on beans and weenies anymore and neither is Monticello. An impressive visitor center (“the 21st-century gateway to Jefferson’s timeless Monticello”) has been added in the last decade, complete with theater, exhibits, and an extensive gift store.
And not too long ago, under threat of development, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the summit of Montalto (which towers 410 feet above Monticello), for 15 million dollars, the same amount Jefferson authorized for the Louisiana Purchase. There is also happy news of a “major gift” to update the house systems installed in the 1950s and rebuild Mulberry Row, the plantation’s work area that included a joiners shop, a smoke house, slave homes, and many other structures.
One of the most agreeable changes to me, however, is the ongoing restoration of Monticello’s gardens, particularly the productive garden. Peter Hatch, the estate’s Director of Gardens and Grounds Emeritus and author of ‘A Rich Spot of Earth’: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello, arrived in Charlottesville just a handful of years before our move to South Carolina.
Today’s terrace garden, at 1,000-feet long and 80-feet wide, is a recreation of the original as it existed between 1807 and 1814. The interpretation is especially precise in structural detail—from the location of twenty-four growing beds on the “garden plateau” to the appearance of its pavilion—but there are differences too. Modern tools reduce maintenance, irrigation (unfeasible during Jefferson’s tenure) sustains plants during drought, and some species are cultivated to supply seed (destined for Monticello’s Center for Historic Plants) rather than food.
Our third president savored his vegetable garden at Monticello for the experimentation it afforded, as well as the food it provided. How much work Jefferson undertook himself is unknown, but there’s no doubt he kept meticulous records in his “Garden Kalendar” as he recorded the success or failure of seeds and plants collected from around the world, including figs from France, squash from Italy, and peppers from Mexico.
If you’d like to learn more about Jefferson the gardener, Hatch’s book is the definitive guide. Or better yet, visit Monticello during the 7th Heritage Harvest Festival, scheduled for September 6th and 7th. Details are available on the website.