“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”
Mile after mile we drive on winding narrow roads cut deep like ditches through virgin woods. Wild dogwood and southern redbud bloom among tall pines. We pass battlefields prominent in both wars, the War for American Independence and the War Between the States.
This is Albermarle County, in the Virginia Piedmont region where Thomas Jefferson established Monticello. We have eschewed major highways for backcountry travel because, after all, this is a tour of early American history in situ rather than from books or films. These now paved ditch-like roads follow the old Indian trails, cut deep to avoid detection by enemy armies in the old wars.
On our winding road this spring day, we pass many old mansions and farmhouses, several obviously antebellum or possibly even pre-Revolutionary era, most early 19th century. I see, in the far distance across acres of meadow, what appears to be Montpelier, James Madison’s estate. My romantic notions convince me it could be.
Shortly before we reach Monticello, we stop in a woodland area for lunch at Michie Tavern (c. 1784) where black-eyed peas and fresh cornbread are served on original pewter dishes.
The word “Monticello” means “Little Mountain” in Italian. This was Thomas Jefferson’s private world where he retreated with his family, his farm, his books and scientific experiments. The landscape itself was his agricultural workhouse; the gardens were his experimental laboratory for the study of natural history – horticulture and how natural elements of weather and even insects affected plant life in the Piedmont. He kept meticulous, “maddeningly” methodical records in a Weather Memorandum Book and his personal garden journal, dated 1767-1824. Published in 1944 as Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, these records became a singular source for researchers in early horticulture; it is available for purchase at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants or online from http://www.monticelloshop.com.
Beds of spring tulips are prominent the day we visit the estate. Each variety of tulip is showcased in its own ten-foot bed within borders along winding walks. Unlike Williamsburg’s enclosed cottage gardens, all the beds are open to the Piedmont landscape and, thus, to the vagaries of a Virginia weather system.
I am most impressed by the two acres of working gardens carefully laid out according to Jefferson’s original design, including rows of both herbs and vegetables. Rather than sculptured squares of private gardens as at Colonial Williamsburg, Jefferson terraced a thousand-foot-long rectangle on the southeastern slope, a ferme ornée amalgam of a working farm with its pictorial and bucolic scenes, including a brick “folly” or garden pavilion.
Within the ferme ornée, Jefferson positioned the north-south arrangement of rows so that each plant receives an equal amount of sunlight hours daily. There he experimented with more than 300 varieties of vegetables cultivated from seed from around the world in order to select only the best variety of vegetable. Interspersed among rows of vegetables he planted nearly two dozen different culinary and medicinal herbs ranging from basil and borage to valerian and winter savory.
At the west end of the long walk, arbors of rough-hewn posts and crossbeams, made from forked limbs of black locust trees, support pole beans in white, scarlet, crimson, purple. He included 46 bean varieties and 25 types of English peas! In fact, Jefferson encouraged friendly competition among his neighbors as to who could harvest the first English pea of the season. The winner hosted a community dinner where each guest could sample one teaspoon of peas contributed from each gardener. I don’t think we have to guess who won!
Summer brings other native plants such as Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemose) and Virginia bluebells among cultivated perennials, historic roses, and iris.
Monticello is open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Christmas Day. The gardens and grounds are available for walking tours from April to October. Be sure to stop in at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants where you may purchase packets of heirloom seeds. Or order online at http://www.monticelloshop.com/farm-garden-seeds.html.
For further reading:
Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 1944
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 2002 (113-157)
Dining at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 2005 (55-63)
Virginia Wildflowers: A Natural History Gallery of Wildflowers and Mushrooms, at https://virginiawildflowers.org/