Monticello Vegetable Garden: A Place for Contemplation & Curiosity
Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello embodies for me the concept of seeing familiar territory in a different light. The estate is a place I have visited periodically over several decades, as my mother lived for 25 years in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Monticello is located. Each time I make an excursion to the plantation, I see a new facet of the property, and the man who shaped its creation and my country.
Late one May afternoon, my husband Tom and I made a spontaneous decision to peek in on Monticello again. We drove along the winding, wooded road up to the “little mountain,” as the plantation’s name is known in Italian.
In addition to being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third U.S. President, Jefferson was a scientist, credited with inventing a type of plow, a coding machine, sundial, and portable copying press. A gentleman farmer, he was also an epicurean who served continental cuisine to guests, a taste he acquired while living in Paris as trade commissioner.
Although I regularly take refuge in my own garden, I had never visited Jefferson’s. Tom and I took stairs from the main grounds down to the vegetable garden, a 1,000-foot long terrace carved into the hillside and extending out and away from the house. In the golden light of a glorious late afternoon, we admired the vista above grape arbors and orchards and across the rolling hills of the Piedmont countryside. The undulating contours of the countryside made it easy to understand why one of Jefferson’s visitors remarked on the dramatic “sea view.”
Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Garden.
We noticed with great curiosity that about midway along the garden’s perimeter, a tiny structure was perched on the crest of the hilltop, resembling a brick gazebo of sorts. Its façade was graced with massive arched windows that extended from floor to ceiling. As we approached, we saw a single wooden chair nestled in the shadows of one of its corners, the only shady spot in the sun-drenched space. I pulled the chair out into the center of the room and sat down, soaking up the sunlight and the serene atmosphere of the quirky and charming spot.
I learned Jefferson referred to the building alternately as the “pavilion,” and "temple". The idea may have been inspired by what he saw in 1786 at the great English landscape park, Stowe, which featured two recesses in which there were temples. Jefferson used the quiet retreat to relax and read in the evening. Initially, I was incredulous at the incongruity of a past president, diplomat and architect of a 5,000-acre estate sneaking into the vegetable patch for a few moments of peace. Yet later I discovered another face of Jefferson that I felt illuminated the appeal of this humble sanctuary for him.
Curator of plants at Monticello Vegetable Garden takes us on a journey
Jefferson’s interest in gardening was both culinary and scientific. Salad was an important part of his diet and he once said “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that . . . as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet." He considered the vegetable garden a laboratory; it served as the inspiration for his book “Garden Kalendar” in which he recorded precise observations about the huge diversity of vegetables he cultivated that included: squashes and broccoli from Italy; beans collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition; figs from France; peppers from Mexico; and fifteen varieties of English pea.
Today, one of the garden's stewards is Peggy Cornett, who joined the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1983 as an associate director of gardens and grounds. From 1992 to 2009, she served as the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants before assuming her current role as curator of plants at Monticello.
“I continue to be inspired by Jefferson’s love of gardening,” Cornett said of her tenure at Monticello. “I am so fortunate to not only pursue my personal passion for botany and horticulture but also to have the chance to share this facet of Jefferson’s complex life with others. Like Jefferson wrote, ‘there is not a spring of grass that shoots uninteresting to me …’”
In addition to managing the historic plant collection, Cornett oversees educational programs at Monticello including the Garden and Grounds tour and the Garden Tasting Tours as well as natural history walks, lectures, and horticultural workshops throughout the year. She is the co-director of the Historic Landscape Institute, a unique one-week educational experience in the theory and practice of historic landscape hosted at Monticello.
“The Monticello vegetable garden was meant exclusively for the Jefferson household and his many guests who came to visit sometimes for weeks at a time,” Peggy said. “The vegetable garden and entire South Orchard was enclosed by a ten-foot-high paling fence with boards spaced so close together that, according to Jefferson’s instructions, “as not to let even a young hare in.” There was only one gate, at the top of the vegetable garden steps, and Jefferson kept the only key. It was meant to keep people as well as small animals out. We don’t believe deer were an issue in his day.”
“Jefferson’s garden often didn’t supply enough vegetables for the table, and his granddaughter Ann Carey was assigned the task of purchasing and bartering produce from the enslaved who had their own gardens elsewhere on the plantation,” she continued.
“We know Jefferson spent time in the gardens and was “hands-on,” Peggy explained. “He measured and laid out the winding walk flower border and the vegetable garden beds with an enslaved gardener Wormley Hughes after the terrace was completed. He was involved with sowing peas and lettuces in spring. Isaac Granger Jefferson, an enslaved blacksmith who was later freed by Martha Jefferson, recalled “For amusement he would work sometimes in the garden for half an hour at a right good earnest in the cool of the evening.”
The "pavilion" where Jefferson would sit to read and enjoy the view. Credit: Meg Pier
Jefferson’s affection for nature and knowledge of botany leaves a lasting legacy
Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Pavilion was constructed at the mid-point of the 1000-foot-long vegetable garden, on the outer edge of the terrace—at the highest point of the massive stone wall that supports the terrace.
“I’ve sat in the pavilion many times and also took shelter during an impending storm,” Peggy said. “It’s a dramatic site. One memory I cherish. In 1993 Monticello held a year-long celebration of Jefferson’s 250th birthday, and we had many journalists and dignitaries visiting that year. I remember standing on Mulberry Row looking down at Peter Jennings sitting in the pavilion, typing the text for his report. He had the typewriter on one of the Windsor chairs and he was bent over it, sitting on the other chair. It was very moving.”
“From this vantage point Jefferson could overlook the South Orchard, his land-holdings to the south and east, and the expansive Piedmont of Virginia—a view which is still relatively unspoiled by development today,” she continued. “On a clear day he could see approximately forty miles to the horizon and this endless plain was often called his “sea view.” Willis’s Mountain, which is about forty miles away, was a focal point on clear days. Jefferson described it as a looming mountain, for it appeared to advance or retreat depending on the air quality, much like a mirage at sea. He once mused that his view from the vegetable garden could only be improved by a lake or volcano in the distance.”
“Jefferson seemed to be an eternal optimist and unapologetic pragmatist,” Peggy said. “He was always seeking new crops that would be useful not only for his own consumption but also for all Americans. So he was constantly experimenting, especially in his vegetable garden, trying new varieties of beans, corn, squash, peas, lettuce, on and on. His record keeping was a way of keeping himself honest. One year, 1809, a good majority of the seeds that were planted in the spring failed…which he recorded with unflinching diligence. And yet, he once wrote that the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another. This attitude inspires me all the time.”
“Seed-saving is also in my blood” Peggy shared. “My mother was an amazing vegetable gardener and she taught me her gardening skills at an early age. We saved seeds of heirloom beans that had been passed down in my family for generations. Jefferson likewise kept seeds in vials and tins in a seed press and on a portable rack, which he could easily transport to the vegetable garden. Like Jefferson I can relate to this essential practice of preserving crops for the next season.”
Jefferson's Monticello vegetable garden with the "sea view." Credit: Meg Pier
“Jefferson was a keen observer of nature, which is something I can relate to wholeheartedly,” she continued. “I’m constantly “distracted” and enthralled by nature. Jefferson once wrote ‘I have an interest or affection in every bud that opens, in every breath that blows around me…’and again he wrote ‘there is not a blade of grass that shoots uninteresting to me.’ Again, his record keeping speaks to his observations of natural phenomenon…the issuing forth of birds in spring, the opening of the first buds of trees, the ephemeral wildflowers coming into bloom in the woodlands at Monticello. Especially during his retirement years, Jefferson’s days included time for contemplation.”
“I was a botany major as an undergraduate and remain in love with the flora of North America,” Peggy said. “I admire Jefferson for his knowledge of botany and natural history, which was so respected in his day that a wildflower, which was new to science, was named after him in 1792, the Jeffersonia diphylla.”
My own admiration for Jefferson lies in his genius and seemingly unlimited capacity for innovation; my affinity for the man lies in his intense curiosity and very humanity. He was both brilliant and quirky—the former inspires awe and the latter, a sense of connection.
Perhaps Jefferson and I had shared the same chair in more ways than one. The distinguished statesman is said to have a life-long sensitivity to criticism, something with which I can readily identify. If one of our founding fathers can struggle with perfectionism, then I guess I can give myself a break. Jefferson is also understood to be a very complicated guy, who embodied enormous contradictions; over time, I have found that to be true of most of us. We are all indeed created equal, each of us blessed and challenged with the human condition. Thank God for the simple pleasures and unending fascination of a garden to which one can retreat.
A Jeffersonia diphylla blooming. Credit: Kevin Gepford