The Steward of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Garden

Peter Hatch details the growing secrets of America's founding farmer.
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Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Vegetable Garden

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Vegetable Garden

Photo by: Image courtesy of Robert Llewellyn.

Image courtesy of Robert Llewellyn.

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello vegetable garden.

For 35 years Peter Hatch looked after a fascinating parcel of American history. As  director of gardens and grounds for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Hatch was the advocate and the interpreter explaining the significance of Jefferson’s approach to flowers and vegetables for Monticello visitors.

Hatch also restored and tended Jefferson’s 19th century garden and told the story, in books and lectures, of Jefferson’s deep interest in growing.  A prolific seed saver and plant collector, long before Michael Pollan or Alice Waters came along, proto-foodie Jefferson was on the locavore case. As Hatch wrote on The Huffington Post of Jefferson’s Monticello vegetable patch, “Here grew the earth’s melting pot of immigrant vegetables: an Ellis Island of introductions, the whole world of hardy economic plants: 330 varieties of eighty-nine species of vegetables and herbs, 170 varieties of the finest fruit varieties known at the time. The Jefferson legacy supporting small farmers, vegetable cuisine, and sustainable agriculture is poignantly topical today.”

Also well-versed in the plenitude of the plant kingdom, Hatch has been an adviser to First Lady Michelle Obama in the creation of the White House Kitchen Garden and is the author of the handsome book A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello a tome beautifully illustrated with photographs of Monticello’s diverse plant life. HGTVGardens was lucky enough to glean Hatch’s insights into growing and American history.

You’ve been the director of gardens and grounds for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation since 1977. What will you miss most about your job?

I aspired to make the gardens and grounds department an academy, so I relished the diversity of roles I played: whether clearing trees after a hurricane, writing books about Thomas Jefferson, overseeing large initiatives as a project manager, or rotovating the Monticello vegetable garden. I miss hauling compost into the garden with a pick up truck, then rotovating it into the soil.

Thomas Jefferson had a sort of museum of plants at Monticello. What drove his desire for that diversity?

Jefferson wrote that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” and Monticello became a botanic garden, an experimental laboratory, an Ellis Island of new and unusual plants from around the world.

What did Jefferson grow in his garden?

Peanuts, garlic, sea kale, eggplant, endive, “turnip cabbage” or kohlrabi, “sprout kale” (not sure what it is), tomatoes, nasturtiums for seeds (as capers), rutabaga, raddichio, French sorrel, scurvy grass, lentils, garbanzo beans, West Indian gherkins, asparagus bean, Caracalla bean, Brussels sprouts, orach, corn salad, okra, black salsify,  tree onion, Texas bird pepper,  red globe artichoke, white asparagus, “red snaps,” Choux de Milan cabbage (a variegated Savoy type), red celery, purple broccoli, white eggplant, Pineapple Melon, black pumpkins.

What was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable to eat?

Peas are considered his favorite vegetable because he reserved so much valuable real estate in the garden for them, grew so many varieties (25 varieties), choreographed a succession of plantings every year, engaged in a tradition of pea contests with his neighbors in the spring (the gardener with the first harvest hosted a dinner), and he was often presented gifts of fresh peas by his neighbors when visiting Poplar Forest, his retreat home near Lynchburg, Virginia.

Where can people buy seeds for the sort of plants Jefferson grew in his garden?

What do you grow in your own garden?

My newest garden is emerging. I’m developing a 50’ x 50’ vegetable garden, organized into four squares and surrounded by a border, all enclosed by an 8’ high deer fence. I grow my favorite vegetables — crowder peas, lima beans, tomatoes, eggplants, basil, lettuce, spinach, garlic, leeks, salsify, beets, cabbage, kale, asparagus, and cauliflower and some small fruits: blackberries, blueberries and figs. I’m clearing out an acre of wetland to create a woodland garden along a creek with ferns and spring ephemerals. I’ve planted my favorite trees: white oak, ironwood, sugar maple, Stewartia, silverbell, sourwood, beech, pomegranate – and I watch them grow. I hope to create a meadow garden of fall blooming native wildflowers.

PETER HATCH’S TIPS:

  • Keep a diary of plantings to document — and learn from — successes and failures.
  • Use natural materials like fruit tree prunings to stake peas, running beans, and cucumbers, even tomatoes. Use skinny sapling trees as poles to stake lime and pole beans.
  • Plant a succession of crops to harvest through the season.
  • Add organic matter to the soil to improve its fertility and tilth, as well as its resistance to drought and pests.
  • Take risks, experiment, try new things, have fun.

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