April 13 is Plant Appreciation Day. As you start to tend your garden, consider gardeners over the centuries that relied on their gardens for food. They observed growing conditions like insects and soil health to improve productivity because they had no other choice. Like Thomas Jefferson, they traded and saved seeds and experimented with different varieties in order to maximize the benefits of the garden. You are participating in one of the most important and oldest activities to sustain life.
Jefferson once wrote that the “greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” When he traveled throughout our young country and abroad, Jefferson often exchanged seeds and seedlings with other gardeners. He enjoyed cultivating those seeds and young plants in his Monticello garden.
Because he grew a variety of crops, including a mix of tropical species with cool weather crops, he devised a unique terraced landscape for his 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden. By placing the garden on a south-facing slope, he was able to capture abundant sunshine.
Creating this unique form of “hanging garden” involved the removal of about 600,000 cubic feet of red clay and the creation of a 1,000-foot-long rock wall that was 15-feet tall in some places.
Grow what you eat
Jefferson loved to eat vegetables. His Monticello garden featured 330 different varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits. According to Monticello gardening expert Peter Hatch, Jefferson’s garden inspired a “revolutionary cuisine.” A Monticello recipe for okra soup, for instance, reflects influences from Native Americans (lima beans), Europe (potatoes and tomatoes) and Africa via the West Indies (okra).
Jefferson would be quite at home with the organic gardening movement of today. When his daughter, Martha, wrote to him while he was in Philadelphia serving as secretary of state, she complained about insects damaging the vegetables at Monticello.
He responded, “I suspect that the insects which have harassed you have been encouraged by the feebleness of your plants; and that has been produced by the lean state of the soil.”
He recommended the garden be covered that winter with “a heavy coating of manure. When is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance, and of the best quality.”
Jefferson had a scientist’s mind, and because of that, he kept scrupulous notes about what worked and what did not work in his garden.
He recorded his gardening efforts in his Garden Book, a personal journal he maintained from 1766 to 1824. Hatch reports that Jefferson was not afraid to admit defeat in certain gardening circumstances. “On one page in 1809 the word failed is written down 19 times,” Hatch writes. “He had a holistic view, as we say today, of the gardening process. It is the failure of one thing that is repaired by the success of another.”
Make your garden a retreat
Jefferson enjoyed the restorative aspects of being a gardener and believed that gardens should be seen, experienced and enjoyed.
For example, he designed and built an octagonal pavilion in a central garden location at Monticello and used this spot as a location for reading, writing and even entertaining.
“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth,” he once wrote, “and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”