Sea Kale and Prickly Spinach

Monticello’s head vegetable gardener grows traditional plants in a modern garden. 

Brodowski stands at the fish pond near the iconic west portico of Monticello.

Photography by Jen Fariello

Most people wouldn’t accept a job offer based on sea kale, but that’s exactly what Pat Brodowski did when she became head gardener of the vegetable garden at Monticello in 2009. “That was the thing that sold me on coming here,” she says. A perennial, sea kale is grown covered from the sun for a more delicate flavor. It first grew on the gravelly beaches of England and Norway. “Jefferson had hundreds of them in his garden,” Brodowski says. “We have one row now, and we are going to expand that.”

Shucking hyacinth beans.

Brodowski, who has degrees in horticulture and agriculture, previously worked for Carroll County Farm Museum in Maryland. At Monticello, she “lives what she does. She has all-encompassing plant knowledge,” says Jason Young, manager and curator of the historic gardens. “For her, it’s not just the produce, but also the products that come from it, such as herbs and how they are used.”

The vegetable garden is 1,000 feet long and 80 feet wide—the size of three football fields. Its length is divided into 24 squares, with an additional square of asparagus west of square one. (Jefferson numbered the squares with Roman numerals from west to east and the rows and locations in the squares with Arabic numbers and English letters.) Brodowski says, “The squares are bordered by paths to allow access to the edges during wet weather. Our soil is clay and compacts very easily. We don’t walk in the garden when it’s wet.”

Brodowski helps grow heirloom vegetables using the most organic practices possible. Her work in the garden, notes Young, is on display all the time. “It takes a special type of person to do the work well and properly convey what we are really trying to show to the public,” Young says. 

“We save seeds and sell about 45 varieties in our gift shop,” Brodowski says. “We also make a pepper jelly and a Bloody Mary mix using peppers and tomatoes from the garden. Additionally, we have chefs that visit for special dinners and use the vegetables we have. We share excess with employees and visitors.”

The modern garden reflects information found in Jefferson’s farm journal. “We are lucky to have such a record, and that record is how the garden begins,” Brodowski says. “We identify what Jefferson grew, and we grow it for display. In most years, we grow more than 200 varieties of vegetables and herbs. We have tags that indicate what vegetable it is and the date he first grew it. Some of the first crops were prickly spinach, celery, white onions, lettuce, strawberries, and cucumbers. … This book is invaluable to us.”

Garden stakes indicate Jefferson’s heirloom plants.

In addition to noting the types of produce Jefferson grew, the journal states the times when certain birds reappeared after the winter and specific flowers or trees started to leaf. It also reflects the languages spoken in the different countries where Jefferson found vegetables or seeds. For example, the vegetables were noted in Italian when Italian entrepreneur Philip Mazzei visited Monticello with 10 Italian gardeners. Passages were written in French when Jefferson was living in Paris and sending seeds back to Virginia. “You have to look back in the languages to see what was described and available at the time,” Brodowski says. “We find new things we didn’t know before.”

In addition to saving and replanting their own seeds, Brodowski and her team grow vegetables from the Ark of Taste, an international collection of traditional vegetables, meat, fish, and nuts from different cultures that “we don’t want lose. They are cultural milestones,” she says. They also grow economic crops and “crops reflecting the expedition of Lewis and Clark, as well as the foods of the enslaved and the various northern European crops that you’d expect of a gentleman farmer.” 

“Jefferson’s kitchen was a fusion kitchen,” Brodowski continues. “He kept looking at everything and trying new things out all the time. He wanted to see how foods would grow in Virginia. He took James Hemings (chef de cuisine and brother to Sally Hemings) to France with him to learn French cooking.” Jefferson was also inspired by foods brought by ship from the Caribbean and by vegetables from northern Europe. “He made very carefully nurtured dishes with sauces,” she says. “Jefferson was above all an experimenter, and this garden was his laboratory.” 

The Farm Table restaurant’s Alice salad is made with garden-picked greens, herbs, and vegetables.

Planting Heirloom Veggies

Although some of Pat Brodowski’s techniques are unique to Monticello, others apply to any Virginia gardener. Here, she offers a few tips for fellow gardeners.

• Because the garden at Monticello faces almost exactly south, it’s hotter and dryer than you’d expect. The solution? “We have to plant things deeply because the surface is so dry,” she says.

• Rather than buying plants, grow heirloom vegetables from seed; simply save seeds from the fruit or vegetable each year. “You don’t have to invest a lot of money after the first seed package,” says Brodowski. You can also share heirloom seeds. “That’s the cool thing about heirlooms.”

• Pop your seeds into the refrigerator to keep them longer.

• Tomato seeds and anything fleshy should be fermented. Put the seeds in a cup of water. Within a week all the good seeds will drop to the bottom of the water.

• Encourage beneficial insects and birds to do pest control. Observe what is going on and don’t spray toxins. 


This article originally appeared in our April 2020 issue. Learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello.org. Jefferson’s farm journal is available online through the Massachusetts Historical Society at MassHist.org. For more on the Monticello garden wall, click here.

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