The Glorious Gardens at Monticello

Thomas Jefferson wasn’t just one of America’s greatest minds, he was a fine gardener as well.

On a cloudless fall day, I couldn’t resist the urge to drive to Monticello. Thomas Jefferson’s Albemarle County estate is a must-see on any gardener’s list. A visit offers a history lesson as well as an opportunity to see recreated flower and vegetable gardens where Jefferson experimented with plant varieties he purchased from around the world.

It’s hard to believe a man as accomplished as Jefferson would have the time for or interest in gardening. His short list of accomplishments includes writing the Declaration of Independence and serving as governor of Virginia, secretary of state, vice president and president. He designed and founded the University of Virginia and designed Monticello and his second home at Poplar Forest in Bedford County. Yet after achieving all this, he wrote in 1811, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”

Jefferson’s beloved gardens at Monticello had nearly disappeared after his death in 1826. Thankfully, Jefferson was an obsessive record keeper, and the Garden Club of Virginia restored his gardens based on his documentation and archaeological evidence between 1939 and 1941. The vegetable gardens were restored in 1979. During my visit, I took a guided tour of the gardens and saw many varieties that are not typically grown today.

The flower gardens consist of 20 oval flowerbeds around the main house and the Winding Walk, a meandering loop surrounding the west lawn. Historians know of at least 105 flower species that Jefferson grew, and the gardens are planted with these varieties as well as others typical of Jefferson’s time. The flower gardens are planted three times each year, making it worthwhile to visit at different seasons. In fall, fully grown summer annuals dominate the flower gardens. Most have simple blooms with plenty of foliage, so the effect is informal and loose, like a wildflower garden.

According to Monticello’s website, the flower gardens were tended by Jefferson’s daughters and granddaughters with the assistance of an elderly slave. I can imagine Jefferson walking the grounds, pondering some great political issue, planning next year’s plants or simply sharing the joy of gardening with his family. A quote from his granddaughter, Ellen Randolph, offers a glimpse into the role gardening played in his private life. “What joy it was for one of us to discover the tender green breaking through the mould, and to run to grandpapa to announce, that we really believed Marcus Aurelius was coming up, or the Queen of the Amazons was above ground. … Oh, these were happy moments for us and for him!”

In the vegetable garden, Jefferson experimented with 330 varieties and more than 70 species of vegetables. On the southeast slope of the mountain, the two-acre vegetable garden is perched on a terraced shelf 80 feet wide and 1,000 feet long, cut into the hillside and supported by a stone wall. Records show that in 1812, the garden was organized according to the part of the plant that was harvested, such as roots, leaves or fruits. At the midpoint, Jefferson built a brick Garden Pavilion where he could read and take in the view of the rolling hills below. In his day, a 10-foot high wood fence surrounded the garden, protecting it from hungry animals. Today’s garden lacks the protective fence, affording unobstructed views of the valley.

On the grounds of Monticello, Jefferson also planted orchards, a fruit garden for berries, and a grove of trees. He experimented with growing grapes, but successful viticulture wouldn’t take hold in Virginia until the 20th century. Although Jefferson’s vision was grand, it could not have been carried out without the many slaves who labored on his land. Exhibits give some insight into what is known about slave life at Monticello.

The gardens aren’t just for show; the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants was established in 1987 to collect, preserve and distribute historic plant varieties grown at Monticello. The Center for Historic Plants publishes Twinleaf, an annual journal and catalogue. Seeds, plants and books are available at the Museum Shop. The new visitor center also has a café, theatre, galleries and exhibits, so you can easily spend all day at Monticello.

It couldn’t be more fitting that Monticello has become a treasure trove of knowledge for gardeners. During the cold days ahead, Monticello’s website is a great resource for planning your garden. You can research varieties grown at Monticello, see what’s currently in bloom, shop for seeds and garden accessories, and sign up for classes and workshops.

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