Monday, August 13, 2018

Thomas Jefferson's Vegetable Garden

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kosciuszko (1746 - 1817) 

Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden evolved over many years, beginning in 1770 when crops were first cultivated along the contours of the slope. Terracing was introduced in 1806, & by 1812, gardening activity was at its peak. The 1,000-foot-long terrace, or garden plateau, was literally hewed from the side of the mountain with slave labor, & it was supported by a massive stone wall that stood over 12 feet in its highest section. One contemporary visitor remarked on the dramatic "sea view" across the rolling Piedmont countryside.
Perched atop the wall, at the half-way point of the garden, is the garden pavilion with its double-sash windows, Chinese railing, & pyramidal roof. The pavilion was used by Jefferson as a quiet retreat where he could read in the evening. It was reputedly blown down in a violent wind storm in the late 1820's. The pavilion based on Jefferson's notes & archaeological excavations. It overlooks an 8-acre orchard of 300 trees, a vineyard, & Monticello's berry squares, which are plots of figs, currants, gooseberries, & raspberries.

The main part of the 2-acre garden is divided into 24 "squares," or growing plots, & at least in 1812, the squares were arranged according to which part of the plant was being harvested -- whether "fruits" (tomatoes, beans), "roots" (beets, carrots), or "leaves" (lettuce, cabbage). At the base of the wall, below the garden, Jefferson successfully grew figs in Submural Beds, which were also situated to create a uniquely warm setting.

The vegetable garden was a also kind of laboratory where Jefferson could experiment with imported squashes & broccoli from Italy, beans & salsify collected by the Lewis & Clark expedition, figs from France, & peppers from Mexico. Although he would grow as many as 20 varieties of beans & 15 types of English peas, his use of the scientific method selectively eliminated inferior types: "I am curious to select one or two of the best species or variety of every garden vegetable, & to reject all others from the garden to avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy."

Because of favorable air drainage on a small mountaintop, late spring frosts are rare, & the first freezing temperatures in the fall rarely occur before Thanksgiving. A particularly warm environment was created in the Northwest Borders by radiating warmth from the grassy bank of the slope below Mulberry Row. Jefferson used this border to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, & peas very early in the season.

The site & situation of the garden enabled Jefferson to extend the growing season into the winter months & provided an amenable climate for tender vegetables such as the French artichoke. The garden, as well as the orchard, was surrounded by a 10-foot-high wooden or "paling" fence, which ran for nearly 3/4 of a mile. While the fence was constructed primarily as a defense against domestic animals & deer, the boards were placed "so near as not to let even a young hare in."

All information from Thomas Jefferson Foundation.