Thomas Jefferson, plant collector extraordinaire

The view from the Monticello Garden © Britt Conley

The view from the Monticello Garden © Britt Conley

Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power” -Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) Like his predecessor George Washington, Jefferson had longed to care for his farm and garden. “My views and attentions are all turned homeward“, he wrote a fellow gardener. Finally on March 15th 1809, after serving 12 years as president and vice-president, Thomas Jefferson returned to his beloved Monticello.

Jefferson's written plans for the gardens at Monticello Drawings of the gardens, orchards and grove at Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to J. H. Freeman. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

Jefferson’s written plans for the gardens at Monticello
Drawings of the gardens, orchards and grove at Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to J. H. Freeman. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

I am constantly in my garden as exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors when at Washington“. He was continually taking notes while supervising the activities on the plantation. These notes were eventually transferred to his Garden Book, a journal he kept from 1766-1824. His estate manager later recalled that Jefferson knew every plant in his garden and would instantly notice if a single tree had died or a specimen was missing. And specimens Jefferson had.

Vegetable Garden Pavillion (reconstructed in 1984) Image Credit: The Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Vegetable Garden Pavillion (reconstructed in 1984)
Image Credit: The Thomas Jefferson Foundation

There is not a sprig of grass the shoots uninteresting to me”. Plants representing the traditions of Europe, Colonial America, Native America, and Enslaved America filled the grounds.  The vegetable gardens, flower beds, shrubberies, orchards and groves contained plants collected either by Jefferson himself or by others at his request.  5 species of oak, 7 types of fir, 13 different roses, 7 varieties of cherries, 8 species of locust, 5 kinds of both magnolia and pines, and 150 varieties of fruit bearing plants are just a small fraction of the total.

Aerial of Monticello Mountain from the South (showing the West Lawn, Main House, Mulberry Row, Vegetable Garden Terrace, and South Orchard). Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Aerial of Monticello Mountain from the South (showing the West Lawn, Main House, Mulberry Row, Vegetable Garden Terrace, and South Orchard).
Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Lunaria still in bloom. An indifferent flower.                                                                                                 Mirabilis just opened. Very clever.                                                                                                                     Larger Poppy has vanished-Dwarf poppy still in bloom but on the decline.                                            Carnations in full life.                                                                                                                                            Argemone, one flower out”  - Notes from the Garden Book                                     Jefferson didn’t follow the usual pattern of collecting plants just for the sake of having them. He used Monticello as a laboratory, an early American experiment farm. He experimented with different growing methods and ran what are called field trials today, always observing, experimenting, and recording. He was searching for the best possible varieties, the most useful plants for American soils and climate.

The Northeast Vineyard Image credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Skip Johns.

The Northeast Vineyard
Image credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Skip Johns.

He categorized his vegetables into “Fruits”, “Leaves” and “Roots”, recorded sowing, transplanting and harvest dates, recorded weather patterns and temperature. He even measured the circumference of berries. It was a practical and patriotic undertaking. “One service of this kind rendered to a nation is worth more to them than all the victories of the most splendid pages of their history” 

The vegetable garden at sunset. Image by Peter J. Hatch

The vegetable garden at sunset.
Image by Peter J. Hatch

Planting is one of my great amusements, and even of those things which can only be for posterity, for a Septuagenary has no right to count on anything beyond annuals”  As Jefferson grew older, care of gardens and grounds was gradually taken over by other household members. When possible he would ride for hours around his beloved Monticello, often accompanied by a family member who would faithfully note his comments to be added to the Garden Book. His interest in gardening and plants continued until his death.

Frost on the garden Image by Carpe Feline

Frost on the garden
Image by Carpe Feline

I have often thought that if heaven had given me a choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden…I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”  Jefferson to Charles W. Peale, 1811

640px-Reproduction-of-the-1805-Rembrandt-Peale-painting-of-Thomas-Jefferson-New-York-Historical-Society_1

Portrait by Rembrandt Peale

Want to learn more?                                                                                                                                    Two excellent sources for information on Jefferson’s farming and gardening activities are the digital facsimiles of the manuscripts compiled by Jefferson throughout his lifetime, his Farm Book and his Garden Book. These documents, owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society, have been transcribed and the entire contents are keyword searchable along with excellent quality digital facsimiles of the manuscript pages. http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/tje/Agriculture-and-Gardening

Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Leonard Phillips

Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Leonard Phillips

Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico EMG

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4 Responses to “Thomas Jefferson, plant collector extraordinaire”

  1. Mary Thompson says:

    Well written. Enjoyed mixture of quotes and photos.

  2. sylviah1 says:

    Thanks!

  3. BarryWillson says:

    Really I enjoyed reading your article.

  4. sylviah1 says:

    Thank you!