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Jefferson’s Kitchen Garden

Here’s the iconic view of Thomas Jefferson’s kitchen garden at Monticello, showing his little Grecian temple of a garden pavillion in the middle of the 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden.

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Jefferson famously identified his profession as “farmer,” even after his presidency, and fittingly, he had this garden built for his retirement years. It took seven slaves using a mule and cart three years to create this terrace out of the hillside, finishing in 1809.  The two-acre garden is divided into 24 “squares” arranged according to which part of the plant was being harvested – whether fruits, roots, or leaves.  The hot south-facing site allowed for an extended growing season.

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From left: sea kale, ‘Carolina’ lima beans, cucumbers

As an eater, Jefferson chose mainly vegetables, using meats as condiments.  For salads he planted lettuces and radishes every two weeks throughout the growing season.  And get this – to produce a suitable salad oil for all those salads, he grew his own sesame.  His favorite cooked vegetable was the pea, of which he grew 23 varieties.

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Jefferson also grew gobs of fruit, like the figs you see here thriving in the warm microclimate along the stone wall of this south-facing hillside.  Currently about 50 fig trees are grown here and Director of Gardens Peter Hatch tells me the best ones are the ‘Marseilles’, which Jefferson brought from France, and ‘Brown Turkey’, which is today the most popular variety grown in this region.

In total, Jefferson grew about 600 fruit trees, including plenty of apple trees for cider, brandy and livestock.
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                                             A vineyard, too.

Jefferson, the Messy but Scientific Gardener
From the age of 67, Jefferson tended this kitchen garden, usually with the help of an elderly slave.  He collected seeds and carefully recorded results from his experimentation with 330 vegetable varieties in his garden book until his death at age 83.  Peter Hatch has read the book in its entirely and says it’s replete with the word “fail”.  Jefferson apparently didn’t bother to weed or to edge the beds, as his notes only reflect sowing and harvesting – and the occasional “killed by bug”.

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(If you click on Jefferson’s garden book you’ll notice that its owner, the Massachusetts Hort Society, asks for feedback about the website and indeed I gave them some because surely there are better ways to display this historical treasure.)

Another detail about Jefferson’s recordkeeping I found intriguing is that during his eight years in the White House he charted first and last days of every crop’s availability at the farmer’s markets in the city.  Ever the farmer!

Today
The process of recreating Jefferson’s kitchen garden began in 1979 with two years of archeological excavation. Today, produce from the garden is used in the visitors’ cafeteria, given away at their harvest festival, and used in regular Saturday fruit and vegetable tastings.  Seeds from the kitchen and ornamental gardens are collected and sold, and some are grown today in the White House kitchen garden.

Posted by on September 13, 2011 at 5:53 am, in the category Feed Me.
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15 Responses to “Jefferson’s Kitchen Garden”

  1. Would love to go back in time and spend a day gardening with Jefferson.

    Great post!

  2. David says:

    Aww this is beautiful! One day I will have enough money and land to try to do a similar thing. Thanks for this post!

  3. trey says:

    I love reading about Jefferson and his garden. A man ahead of his time, and a person to study for ideas as we move gardening into it’s next phase. Linked to this post here. http://thegoldengecko.com/blog/?p=2560

  4. Michele Owens says:

    Wish I were there!

    I love the look of the long, long garden with beds perpendicular to the hillside.

  5. Laura Bell says:

    I think I’ve developed an “intellectual crush” on Thomas Jefferson. Had I known him, he might have driven me crazy with his obsessive note-making, but as a gardener, plant-lover, & wannabe-scientist I can really appreciate the work he did. And here I was proud of myself for keeping a minimal garden journal for six months !

  6. anne says:

    do you know what the pot-like things are in amongst the sea kale? They look a little like strawberry pots.

  7. susan harris says:

    Anne, I wrote to Peter about your question (my notes only said the pots are “for blanching”, which I honestly don’t understand) and he wrote me back to say:

    They are sea kale pots. Sea Kale is a cabbage family species, Crambe maritima, that grows wild along the seacoast of Great Britain. A perennial, the spring shoots are naturally blanched (covered to prevent production of chlorophyll) by shifting sands along the beach. The flavor of these shoots are improved when blanched, so gardeners imitate this by using sea kale pots that cover the spring shoots, which are harvested when they get to be 6” to 12” high. They are then prepared, according to Jefferson, like asparagus.

  8. Wow. What a great blog post! What a farmer. What an amazing guy.
    I love learning about the sea kale blanching, so thanks for looking into that. It sounds like a pretty labor-intensive plant.

  9. tibs says:

    So if Jefferson did not weed or edge, should the garden at Montecello be as manicured as it is?

    If we find it hard to read his journal, it will be next to imposible for the generation currently starting grade school. Some school districts are no longer teaching cursive, They teach them how to sign their name. Wow, maybe that will be a job for us old fogies, get jobs reading old hand written documents like deeds etc.

  10. Herb Gardener says:

    A two acre garden! Now if that isn’t something to be jealous about, I don’t know what is!

  11. DAY says:

    While Jefferson was a “Renaissance Man” in every way- read Greek and Latin, farmer and architect, creator of the Constitution, let us not overlook that the garden was built and tended by slaves.

  12. DeborahB says:

    I find it quite a leap in logic to say that since Jefferson didn’t write about weeding, they must not have weeded the garden. The man had slaves. I bet he had the cleanest rows in the county.

  13. BB says:

    Speaking of Jefferson’ garden…
    I’ve been dying to grow the highly ornamental Vigna caracalla or Caracalla Bean, “the most beautiful bean in the world” as Jefferson put it.
    It says on the Monticello.org website that its flowers are edible, but I was wondering if anyone knew whether the beans are also? Scarlet runner beans are highly ornamental–and edible beaned. I grow other Vignas in my garden with edible beans (yard longs and cowpeas) but am dying to grow FRAGRANT ones like the caracalla.

  14. commonweeder says:

    I read more about Jefferson and his gardens in The Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf which is just fascinating and readable – and includes the gardens of Washington, Adams and Madison and what their garden philosophy said about their governing philosophy. And we owe Madison a great deal today. Wonderful read.

  15. žogi says:

    I’m looking forward to make my own vinegarden :) luck to me!

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