At Monticello, Jefferson’s Methods Endure
At Monticello, Jefferson’s Methods Endure
By ANNE RAVER - New York Times, 6/30/2010
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - NEW gardeners smitten with the experience of growing their own food — amazed at the miracle of harvesting figs on a Brooklyn rooftop, horrified by the flea beetles devouring the eggplants — might be both inspired and comforted by the highs and lows recorded by Thomas Jefferson from the sun-baked terraces of his two-acre kitchen garden 200 years ago.
And they could learn a thing or two from the 19th-century techniques still being used at Monticello today.
“He was experimental and had a lot of failures,” Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds, said on a recent afternoon, as we stood under a scorching sun in the terraced garden that took seven slaves three years to cut into the hill. “But Jefferson always believed that ‘the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.’ ”
After he left the White House in 1809 and moved to Monticello, his Palladian estate here, Jefferson grew 170 varieties of fruits and 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs, until his death in 1826.
As we walked along the geometric beds — many of them planted in an ancient Roman quincunx pattern — I made notes on the beautiful crops I had never grown. Sea kale, with its great, ruffled blue-green leaves, now full of little round seed pods. Egyptian onions, whose tall green stalks bore quirky hats of tiny seeds and wavy green sprouts. A pre-Columbian tomato called Purple Calabash, whose energetic vines would soon be trained up a cedar trellis made of posts cut from the woods.
“Purple Calabash is one of my favorites,” Mr. Hatch said. “It’s an acidic, almost black tomato, with a convoluted, heavily lobed shape.”
Mr. Hatch, who has directed the restoration of the gardens here since 1979, has pored over Jefferson’s garden notes and correspondence. He has distilled that knowledge in Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden, to be published by Yale University Press.
This “seed-y missionary,” as Mr. Hatch calls Jefferson, collected seeds and cuttings from around the world and distributed them to others, only to have them die in his own garden.
“Jefferson would kill the thing at Monticello and go back to George Divers and say, ‘What happened to those black-eyed peas I brought back from France in 1789?’ ” Mr. Hatch said, referring to Jefferson’s neighbor, a much better gardener who usually won their pea-growing contest.
Jefferson’s eagerness to give away seeds and plants was “a great lesson about sharing stuff,” Mr. Hatch said, “so that when it dies at your house, you can go to your neighbors for a replacement.” (So, pass cuttings and seeds over the garden fence.)
There are many such deaths — from drought, insects and disease — recorded in Jefferson’s garden book between 1766 and 1824. His meticulous calendar, which documents when each seed was sown, when it sprouted, flowered and came to table or died, serves as a rough guide for Mr. Hatch today.
Yet this same garden book is maddeningly devoid of details on how plants were protected from disease and insects.
Mr. Hatch does recount a plague of insects descending on Monticello while Jefferson was away, as secretary of state, and his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph writing to him in despair.
“Jefferson wrote back and said the problem was the crummy soil,” Mr. Hatch said. “He told his daughter that when he returned, the two of them would cover the entire garden with a heavy coating of dung.”
Mr. Hatch’s book includes the letter, dated July 21, 1793, in which Jefferson writes, “I suspect that the insects which have harassed you have been encouraged by the feebleness of your plants, and that has been produced by the lean state of the soil.”
He adds, “When earth is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance and of the best quality.” His words reveal a man of the earth far ahead of his time: the scientific connection between fertile soil and plant health is only now being documented.
At Monticello, the gardeners dig plenty of homemade compost and aged manure into the soil, when they can get it. But allegiance to Jefferson’s methods goes only so far.
When flea beetles — known to Jefferson as turnip flies — hit the eggplant seedlings this spring, gardeners sprayed them with insecticidal soap. They will use other pesticides, as benign as possible, to save crops. Now, those eggplant seedlings are hefty three-footers, full of purple flowers.
The intense heat and humidity of a Virginia summer explain why colonial gardens were planted only in spring and toward the end of summer, when temperatures cooled. But Jefferson gardened year-round, planting early in heat-collecting beds along the mountain slope and growing heat-loving crops like okra, melons and tomatoes during the scorching summers. He also grew cool-season lettuces long past their time in the low-lying, damper areas farther down the mountain. (So look for the warm spots around your own garden, as well as the shady, cooler ones, so you can push the limits as he did.)
Jefferson’s biggest mistake was to put his monumental, 1,000-foot-long garden on the south side of this mountain, where it is in full sun from dawn to dusk, with no water source.
The restored vegetable garden here is watered by overhead sprinklers supplied by a 30,000-gallon cistern fed by a spring a half mile down the mountain. If Jefferson’s slaves hauled barrels of water from there on a mule-drawn wagon, there is no known record of it.
We might think that farmers’ markets are new, but the Washington farmers’ market was thriving when Jefferson was in the White House. He avidly supported its farmers, bringing them seeds collected by his consuls in their respective countries, as well as seeds and cuttings from his own plantation, where crops from Africa and the Americas were flourishing.
Mr. Hatch sees the okra soup that came out of the Monticello kitchen as a melting pot of international crops and cuisine. An early form of gumbo, it included cimlins (squash) and lima beans inherited from the Southwest Indians, tomatoes from Central America — at a time when Northern Europeans still believed the love apple was poison — and okra from Africa, via the Caribbean, where it was “creolized,” as Mr. Hatch put it, by French and African-American cooks.
Now that the Obamas are growing vegetables on the South Lawn of the White House, Monticello has become a source of heirloom varieties like Tennis Ball lettuce and Texas bird peppers.
Pat Brodowski, Monticello’s head gardener, saw me eying the round seed pods of the sea kale and clipped off a few of the dried stems. “The seed doesn’t stay viable very long, so plant them in a pot as soon as you get home,” she said.
If I’m lucky, a few seeds will sprout and grow into sturdy plants that can be set in the garden.
Sea kale is a true perennial that can be wintered over, even in New York, if protected by mulch. The plant dies down to the ground, but in spring its tender shoots can be eaten like asparagus.
At Monticello, the shoots are protected by upside-down clay pots in early spring. Then the pots are removed and the unfurling leaves are enjoyed as ornamentals, sending up stalks covered with tiny white flowers.
Jefferson’s favorite vining beans wind up a variety of sturdy cedar structures, which are an extrapolation from the scant records he left about arbors and other supports. And Ms. Brodowski is happy to show visitors how the fiber from the yucca plants that grow here can be macerated and woven into a sturdy twine that was probably used to lash such posts in place.
Monticello’s gardeners dressed the asparagus beds and sowed peas in February, following the practices Jefferson recorded in his calendar.
“But we don’t sow a thimbleful of lettuce every Monday morning,” as Jefferson did, Ms. Brodowski said.
Jefferson’s ritual is good advice for today’s kitchen gardeners, because successive plantings of small amounts of seed keep everything from maturing at once. But when it comes to lettuce, a cool-season crop that grows bitter and goes to seed as soon as hot weather arrives, Ms. Brodowski ignores Jefferson’s advice.
“He really wasn’t a very good gardener,” she said with a laugh. “He was adventurous.”
And pushing the limits was his gift to gardeners.
The Jeffersonian Way, With Peas and Beans
THE art of saving seeds is alive at Monticello, where gardeners are busy harvesting the pods of spent peas, beans and sea kale. Gardeners everywhere can do the same, letting the pods dry completely in a semi-shady room with good air circulation, then packing them in tightly sealed containers and storing them in a refrigerator or freezer.
Another lesson from Monticello is planting crops in a quincunx pattern. It is an efficient use of space, and the precise rows it creates — of parallels and diagonals — adds orderly beauty. Pat Brodowski, Monticello’s head gardener, uses a compass and string to align beds and then sets her plants in the square, much like the five dots on a die.
She uses a measuring stick to set the plants an equal distance apart, and as the beds are connected, the effect is one of perfectly aligned diagonals and perpendiculars. The artichoke plantings are a gorgeous example of this ancient Roman technique, and they may be seen all summer until frost.
Erecting sturdy posts, especially from cedar or black locust, adds beauty to a garden and gets plants off the ground, where, as Jefferson knew, they were more subject to insects and disease. Ms. Brodowski’s crew laid four 12-foot posts on the ground and wound jute, or sturdy twine, around the tops. When the posts were lifted up and brought out to the corners of the bed, their weight worked much like the stones in a Roman bridge, holding them in place with no need to sink the ends into the earth.
Simple brush fences made of well-branched woody plants can be used to “stick” peas or beans, as gardeners did in Jefferson’s day. “Set them in place when you plant your peas, and the tendrils will grab onto the branches,” Ms. Brodowski said.