Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Learning from Thomas Jefferson’s garden

Watercolor painting of Monticello in 1825 by Jane Braddick Peticolas

By Emma Loewe

Thomas Jefferson left a clear mark on U.S. society with his roles as a founding father, president and diplomat. But some may be surprised to learn that another one of Jefferson’s boundless legacies can be found in a dreamy expanse of land in Virginia. His personal gardens at Monticello are a beautiful reminder that this president’s influence extended far beyond the White House.

“Jefferson's Monticello vegetable garden was unique for its size and scope and the genius of its south-facing microclimate,” says author Peter Hatch, who was director of gardens and grounds at Monticello for 35 years and will talk about the famous garden and his research (as well as his work with First Lady Michelle Obama and her White House garden) in a lecture at Duke Gardens on April 18.

“The 1,000-foot-long garden terrace was an ideal setting for prolonging the growing season through the winter months and for capturing a wealth of crop ripening sunshine for the latest vegetable novelties,” Hatch says. This innovative technique and idyllic location yielded an array of vegetable varieties that included tennis-ball lettuce, pineapple melon and prickly-seeded spinach.

In addition to the 330 vegetable and 170 fruit varieties cultivated at Monticello, a boundless array of unique flowers lined the gardens. Some of these notable plants include ancient trees such as little-leaf linden and catalpa, naturalized species like salsify and feathered hyacinth, and a collection of historic roses.

After Jefferson passed away in 1826, it was unclear what would become of the 2,400-acre expanse to which he had devoted his life. Ultimately, his gardens fell into a state of disarray, unable to withstand the elements.

“Eroding soil covered garden walls, a garden pavilion collapsed, the flower gardens were plowed under,” Hatch says, describing the garden’s sad condition. However, a new era in the Monticello chronicle began with a tree preservation program in the 1920s and a flower garden initiative in 1939 and 1941. A more thorough, systemic program of landscape restoration began when Hatch arrived in the late 1970s. With Hatch’s guidance, the garden has worked its way back to its original grandeur.

Hatch’s background as a horticulturist and historian made him the perfect candidate to spearhead this extensive restoration project. He oversaw the creation of an ornamental forest, the replanting of an orchard and the restoration of a vegetable garden. Now a public park that welcomes nearly 500,000 visitors a year, Monticello boasts 20 vibrant flower beds, an ornamental forest, two vineyards and a nursery in which special species of plants are propagated.

The transformation had its challenges, Hatch notes. Over the last two centuries, some of the historic plants that Jefferson utilized have developed pest problems and diseases that have brought them close to extinction. Therein lies the debacle in balancing a job as a horticulturist and a historian. Balancing his motivations as a horticulturist and a historian has proved interesting at times, Hatch says. “I enjoyed this conflict, displaying flowers for example that visitors might consider weeds today.”

Hatch’s expertise has made him an in-demand consultant. He is also an advisor for Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden. Filled with edible crops, including some of Jefferson’s favorites like tennis ball and brown Dutch lettuce, the gardens “provide a wonderful leadership role in showing how fresh produce can enrich our lives,” he says. 

Today’s gardeners can learn from the initiatives of both Jefferson and the First Lady and apply the philosophies of these leaders to their own back yards. The Monticello and White House Gardens teach us to “have fun in the garden, share seeds with friends and neighbors and keep records of your plantings and your fate,” Hatch says. Most important, don’t be afraid to experiment and take risks in your garden, for as Jefferson once said, “The failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.”


Hatch’s lecture will be from 7-9 p.m. on April 18 in the Doris Duke Center. He will also be available after the lecture to sign copies of his book, “A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello."


Tickets are $23; $18 for Gardens members and Duke students and staff. Parking is free after 5 p.m. To register, please call 919-668-1707.


A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill in English literature and Sandhills Community College’s Landscape Gardening Program, Peter served as the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello for 35 years. His most recent book, "A Rich Spot of Earth": Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello (Yale University Press), covers the Monticello vegetable garden of Jefferson’s retirement years.

Peter also wrote "The Gardens of Monticello," served as editor of "Thomas Jefferson's Flower Garden at Monticello" (University Press of Virginia), and has written numerous articles and lectured in 35 states on Jefferson and the history of garden plants. His scholarly study of early American pomology, "The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello: Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of American Horticulture," was published by the University Press of Virginia in 1999.

Peter served as the President of the Southern Garden History Society from 1998-2000. In 2004 he received the Thomas Roland Medal from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society “for exceptional skill in horticulture.” In 2010 he was named an honorary member of The Garden Club of Virginia, and he has served as an informal consultant and source of plants for Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden. In 2011 he received The Garden Club of America’s Medal in Historic Preservation; he was the first horticulturist to receive the award. Presently, he gardens and works as an independent scholar at his new home on Lickinghole Creek in Albemarle County, Virginia.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Blogger Emma Loewe is an environmental policy major at Duke University and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. 

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