Most Americans celebrate Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the illustrious Founding Fathers who ornamented the presidency in our republic’s fledgling years. Famously, though, the accomplishments he chose for his grave were authoring the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and founding the University of Virginia.
Now, with this beautifully illustrated, authoritative study of Jefferson’s innovative plantings in the vegetable beds of his garden at Monticello by Peter J. Hatch, longtime director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, it appears that Jefferson’s revolutionary activities extended to yet another sphere. As Alice Waters, today’s guiding spirit of locally sourced, sustainable growing, writes in her foreword:
” ‘A Rich Spot of Earth’ … beautifully communicates the beliefs of one of our most visionary Founding Fathers: That our country is built upon the principles of our farmers, and that our relationship to the land our food comes from is one of the most fundamental relationships of all. … Thomas Jefferson’s garden … was … filled with a whole world of hardy economic plants: 330 varieties of ninety-nine species of vegetables and herbs.’ “
Hardy is an important word here and key to Jefferson’s successful backyard enterprise. After all, as Kenneth Clark pointed out in his appreciation of Jefferson and Monticello - an eponymous keystone of his classic television series “Civilisation” - what was achieved there was all the more remarkable because of where it was. Located quite literally on what then was the frontier, what a contrast it is to our more humble associations with that word.
But Jefferson was no common frontiersman. He brought to the Virginia countryside the fruits, figuratively and literally, of his years abroad in America’s service as minister plenipotentiary to France, with its opportunities for travel elsewhere in Europe. So we see in the vegetable beds at Monticello an astonishing variety of the arcane, rarer still on Virginian soil: salsify and garlic, artichokes and sorrel.
“In 1787 [he] wrote to a friend who was overseeing Monticello in his absence to send him seeds of a ‘drying corn from Cherokee country,’ ‘best’ watermelon, ‘fine cantaloupe melon’ and sweet potato. The watermelons, corn and sweet potatoes, like the native trees and shrubs Jefferson was repeatedly ordering from home, were tangible examples of American natural bounty that he aspired to share with the European community of gardeners and natural scientists.”
Jefferson’s activities in agricultural imports across the Atlantic in both directions give unusual resonance to the expression cross-pollination. His particular interest in growing an enormous variety of vegetables was rooted in his own diet, which would please most doctors today and indeed all but the most fanatic vegans:
“According to his granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Jefferson ‘lived principally on vegetables, and friends of a vegetarian system might also claim him as one of themselves. The little meat he took seemed merely as a seasoning for his vegetables.’ “
Or as Jefferson himself put it near the end of his long life:
“I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.”
So although we learn that “Jefferson enjoyed guinea fowl, lamb, mutton and his favorite boiled beef,” it is no wonder that, in 1811, after he had left the presidency and with all his other accomplishments behind him, he could write with evident conviction:
“I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered.”
It is wonderful to find out that the man who contributed so much to the republic in which we live also set his contemporaries - and posterity - such a salutary example in other ways as well.