Peter Hatch's parting salvo

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Peter Hatch, who is retiring after more than 34 years as Monticello’s director of gardens and grounds, has a new book about Jefferson’s vegetable garden. (Photo by Patricia Lyons)

“Tennis ball lettuce, prickly-seeded spinach, Prince Albert pea, pineapple melon.”

The names of the 330 varieties of plants Thomas Jefferson tended at Monticello roll off Peter Hatch’s tongue like a litany, the chant of a man as devoted to green and growing things as the one who first planned and planted the mountaintop garden outside Charlottesville.

Hatch, Monticello’s longtime director of gardens and grounds, is intimately familiar with the vegetative roll call. For the last 34 years, he’s collected them and brought them back to life in a meticulous restoration of Jefferson’s garden, and now, they play a starring role in Hatch’s latest book, “A Rich Spot of Earth” Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.

The 1,000′ terraced vegetable garden at Monticello was Thomas Jefferson’s crowning horticultural achievement, a small miracle born out of careful site selection and near-religious devotion.

“When he used the word garden, he was always reserving the term exclusively for his vegetable garden,” Hatch said. Thanks in large part to Hatch’s efforts, Jefferson’s gardens now look as they did a full two centuries ago, when he retired to his mountaintop home to devote himself to his plants. And the man who took up the mantle of recreating and tending the edible oasis is ready to retire himself.

Hatch is a Michigan native and self-described jock who got a degree in English at the University of North Carolina before turning to gardening. When he first came to Monticello from North Carolina’s Old Salem Museum in 1977, the concept of historic restoration was changing and expanding. No longer was the historic estate merely about furniture and parquet floors. What was outside the walls of America’s great homes and early settlements began to matter as much as what was inside.

Under the leadership of Hatch and then-director Dan Jordan, Monticello embraced the new outlook. Shortly after his arrival, Hatch and a team of restorers and architects began prying up the ground on the south side of the estate where they knew the secrets of Jefferson’s beloved garden lay. They had his notes to go by—700 pages of journal entries and letters compiled in Jefferson’s Garden Book—but that wasn’t enough to ensure that what they created was accurate.

“Jefferson would often dream up or conceive of things that were never actually executed, so deciphering the vision from the reality is always complex,” Hatch said. The final evidence was in the soil itself: stains in the red clay where the dozens of fruit trees, the garden pavilion and even the fence posts had once stood.

Piece by piece, they rebuilt what once was. In adhering to a faithful reproduction, Hatch said he sometimes had to shrug off good gardening sense. “This was a restoration where history and documentation took precedence,” he said.

Jefferson had insisted on a grass-capped border wall, for instance. Fine in cool, cloudy England, said Hatch, but doomed for failure in a torrid Virginia summer.

“We attempted it,” he said, grinning. “It died.”

But the garden lived. As the years went on, Hatch oversaw the rebuilding of Jefferson’s library of heirloom herb and vegetable varieties, an unprecedented collection in the early 19th century.

Five years ago, an end to his tenure at Monticello in sight, Hatch took a sabbatical. He didn’t go far—at Jordan’s suggestion, he took up residence in a small cabin in a quiet corner of the vast estate and hunkered down for the winter.

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do until the day I got there,” he said. “I was scared I was going to end up butting my head against the wall for three months.”
Instead, he wrote a book. Hatch had published and contributed to several other works on Monticello and its grounds and plants already, but this one took aim at the patch of earth he and Jefferson had treasured and worked and written about more than any other: the vegetable garden.

He dove back into the Jefferson’s notes, read up on the gardens of his colonial contemporaries and studied the research of historians who were uncovering new insights into Jefferson’s later years. He pored over the vegetables and the recipes born of them in Monticello’s kitchens, dishes unfamiliar to most early American households, whose inhabitants were unaccustomed to the now-familiar subtropical and Mediterranean crops that Jefferson’s garden grew —tomatoes, okra, even peanuts. And, somewhat to his own surprise, Hatch found there was more to learn about the man whose centuries-old plans and dreams had given shape to a third of a century of Hatch’s own life.

“It was exciting that given all that time, I still had something left to contribute to the study of Jefferson and the garden,” he said.

The result is a 280-page tribute to an extraordinary collection of plants, and to a garden—and gardener—both revolutionary and practical. While Jefferson was evangelical about introducing, growing, and sharing new species that his colonial neighbors had never dreamed of, said Hatch, he wasn’t fussy.

“He wasn’t interested in a really tidy garden with vigorously edged beds and borders and fancy walkways,” Hatch said. “Jefferson was all about sowing and harvesting. To me, that was one of the truly American qualities—it was this peculiarly American, pragmatic garden.”

Perhaps more than any of his works, Hatch’s latest book offers insight into Jefferson himself. Especially in his later years, said Hatch, Jefferson’s almost obsessive attention to detail, his delight in noting each small thing, was focused largely on his rows of plants.

“His interest in gardening arose from a truly wide-eyed curiosity about the natural world,” he said. “Even at the age of 83, he was playing this self-described role of being an old man, but a young gardener.”

This was a man who trudged through red winter mud with surveying chain in hand, even when bent with age, to re-plot his garden. A man who, in his 80s, read about giant cucumbers in a Cleveland paper and wrote to the governor of Ohio to get the seeds, then grew them, measuring each one.

“It was sort of a barometer of his health to be able to write down when his peas were being harvested, or when his salsify was coming in,” said Hatch. “It was a kind of rage against the pathos of aging.”

Hatch is in his 60s himself, now, and ready to set down one spade in favor of another.

Thirty-four years has been long enough to hold a job, he said. He has plans to retire to some family acreage in Crozet to hike and play sports and, yes, botanize.

He’s leaving satisfied, he said, proud of what his hard work has wrought. But he knows that time moves forward, one growing season at a time.

“Gardens come and go quickly,” he said. “That’s what defines them. They’re perennially mutable. They’re always living and dying.”

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