Lessons From Thomas Jefferson’s Garden

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Thomas Jefferson Gardening

Photo courtesy of Patrick Green

When you think of Thomas Jefferson, the term “founding father” probably springs to mind. However, Jefferson was not only a pioneer of our great nation but also a trailblazer in home and garden practices. Monticello, his Virginia estate, was a breeding ground for new garden plantings – both tasteful in their design and literally full of taste when harvested.

Jefferson conceived many of these ideas for his home’s grounds during a 1786 trip to England on diplomatic business with his good friend John Adams. During their two-month stay, the pair found time to tour English gardens and observe how they grew. I personally had the good fortune to spend two years studying abroad in Manchester, England, on a Rotary scholarship. I like to say I spent two years with Jefferson during that period because I visited so many of the same gardens.

Just as he was influenced, so was I. When building my own Moss Mountain Farm, I turned to Jefferson’s garden practices for insight and inspiration because he is so renowned for his innovative ideas – and the principles can be applied to any size garden in any space. Here are three ways Jefferson specifically influenced the way I designed my garden, grow my vegetables and enjoy the beauty of it all.

Terrace Gardens

The vegetable garden at Monticello influenced my terrace gardens at Moss Mountain. Carved along a hillside, it was designed by Jefferson to be a 1,000-foot-long space divided into 24 plots.

To recreate the effect, I followed the contours of the old farm’s terraces to create 320 feet of planting space that gently curves around the side of a hill near my home. A mixed border of shrubs, roses, perennials and annuals occupies the upper terrace, while the lower terrace is planted with flowers for cutting, herbs and fruits. Rather than designing one big planting, which can be overwhelming, the lower terrace is divided into small spaces – similar to the way Jefferson divided his terrace garden into more manageable plots. If you’re working with a large space, I encourage you to consider dividing it into “garden rooms” that will make it easier to design. Think of this process the same way you would think of a floor plan for the interior of your home.

The One-Acre Vegetable Garden

Jefferson wasn’t one to limit himself to well-known staples in the garden either. At Monticello, he grew 330 different varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits. At Moss Mountain, I wanted to experiment with different plants just as he did, so I started a one-acre vegetable garden to give me the space to plant a wide range of diverse edibles.

SEE MORE: 6 Plants Thomas Jefferson Grew That You Can Grow Today

I think of this as a test garden or a plot to explore new varieties. No matter what size your garden may be, be sure to leave a little room to try something new. You never know what you might discover.

Thomas Jefferson Gardening

Photo courtesy of Mark Fonville

Octagon-Shaped Retreats

Not only did Jefferson’s garden design and plantings inspire me, but so did the architecture at Monticello. The two octagon-shaped buildings in the terrace gardens at Moss Mountain Farm are a nod to Jefferson’s garden pavilion. He built his pavilion in a central location of the vegetable garden, and it served as a sheltered place where one could view the surrounding landscape, quietly think, read or even entertain. I use my octagonal buildings much the same way. Jefferson set his pavilion at the midway point of his vegetable garden. If you take nothing else away from this, I hope you’ll create a space in your garden where you can relax and enjoy it. After all, why create it if you aren’t going to enjoy it?

Finally, if you’re like me and can’t get enough of Thomas Jefferson’s practices, I suggest furthering your reading by picking up my friend Peter Hatch’s book, A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello. Peter has served as director of gardens and grounds at Monticello for more than 35 years, so he’s an expert through-and-through on all of Jefferson’s gardening practices. And, if you’re wondering what to do with all of those vegetables when harvest comes, pick up Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife. Written in 1824 by Jefferson’s first cousin, this recipe book holds the secrets to preparing everything from okra and tomatoes to catfish soup. Some consider it to be the first American cookbook.

Whether it’s from a founding father or the patriarch of your own family, examining past practices and techniques can offer insight about why we garden the way we do today. So, I hope you’ll join me by digging into history and finding new ways of looking at your own garden.

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