Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable revolution

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Now more than ever, small-scale gardeners are favoring gentler, “pre-industrialized” ways of vegetable growing. Heightened interest in locavorism, heirloom seed-saving, community gardens, farmers markets, and local food sourcing are also contributing to our collective desire to get our own hands dirty and truly know where our food comes from. Ground-swelling developments like these are what make “A Rich Spot of Earth” Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello by Peter Hatch, Monticello’s long-time director of gardens and grounds, so timely and necessary.

Ultimately, we can thank Jefferson for creating his “revolutionary American garden,” but Hatch has his admirers too, including chef and activist Alice Waters, owner of the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Michelle Obama—Hatch is an adviser for the First Lady’s White House kitchen garden. Hatch has devoted 35 years to the study, restoration, and care of plant life at Jefferson’s hillock estate. His work to uncover, preserve, and communicate Jefferson’s horticultural heritage and restore our third President’s vegetable garden to how it appeared during his retiring years, as Hatch details in “A Rich Spot of Earth”, will no doubt continue this all-out revival in local food and organic, home gardening.

Jefferson retired from public life in 1809, finally allowing him the time to focus on his beloved terraced vegetable garden, a 1000′-long “experimental laboratory” and his “chief horticultural achievement,” Hatch writes. Jefferson took full advantage of Virginia’s temperate climate—mild winters and sub-tropic-like summers—and built a south-facing garden that worked as a microclimate—“one big hotbed,“ details Hatch—enabling both cool season and warm season vegetables to thrive in extended growing seasons.

In his garden lab, Jefferson experimented with a variety of what are now traditional Southern crops: okra, tomatoes, peanuts, sweet potato, rhubarb, cucumbers, asparagus bean, eggplant, and much more. Then, his growing plots represented an “Ellis Island of garden vegetables from around the world,” with 330 varieties of 99 species of herbs and vegetables.

The garden terrace also allowed Jefferson to exercise another of his polymathic gifts—landscape design. Influenced by both everyday practicality as well as his tours of European gardens in the mid-1780s, the fits and starts Jefferson experienced in implementing his vision are described by Hatch, including the arduous task of moving 200,000 cubic feet of earth to make way for the terrace, which created the ultimate stage for Monticello’s 40-mile view-shed of the Piedmont woodland.

“A Rich Spot of Earth” describes the culmination of Jefferson’s hard work, the harvest, and how it was reflected in the meals served at the dinner table. Jefferson’s love of good wine and food is well established. As an avid gardener, he subsisted more on vegetables than meat. This elevated the importance of a successful return on his garden, which had to produce enough food to feed Monticello’s many inhabitants and visiting guests.

Hatch also details the archeological excavations that began to peel back the layers and reveal evidence of Jefferson’s historic garden, work that was lead by archeologist William Kelso. The structural recreation of Jefferson’s garden was led by William L. Beiswanger, Monticello’s architectural historian, who in 1981, along with Kelso and Hatch, sought to create “the most accurate garden restoration of its kind in America,” which, by all accounts, is a success.

Containing over 200 full-color photos and illustrations and with a forward by Waters, “A Rich Spot of Earth” not only reminds us of the simple joys of gardening, but also the importance of preserving our agricultural traditions. Just as Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book—Jefferson’s 60-year garden diary—demonstrates a reverence for the natural world, so does Hatch’s “A Rich Spot of Earth,” a thorough and illuminating documentation of the painstaking efforts by Hatch to restore Jefferson’s legacy as the master of all master gardeners.

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