lessons from thomas jefferson’s vegetable garden, with peggy cornett
I’M THINKING PRESIDENTIALLY at the moment, specifically about Thomas Jefferson, and how he sowed the seeds of fruitful harvests. Peggy Cornett, Historic Gardener and Curator of Plants at Jefferson’s former home, Monticello, taught me about the nation’s third president as a gardener, and about what he grew and how–like a perennial kale, historic lettuces and Native American beans, “strawberry spinach” and more.
In a recent interview I’d done with a British author of a book profiling some of the world’s great gardeners, the name Thomas Jefferson had come up, and got me thinking. As the author of that book said:
“…to think of somebody who was the third President of the United States, and link him with the Declaration of Independence, it almost seems odd that someone so powerful and such a capable man who had so many talents was also a gardener, and a passionate gardener at that and a successful gardener.”
Indeed it does.
That conversation prompted me to reach out to Peggy Cornett, who in fall 2016 received a prestigious commendation for her contributions to horticulture from The Garden Club of America. Peggy joined the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello 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.
Read along as you listen to the Jan. 23, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
q&a: jefferson’s vegetable gardens, with peggy cornett
Q. It’s such an interesting subject: to look back in history with your help. Can you give us a backdrop for those of us who don’t know it? Jefferson was born in 1743 and died in 1826, was President in 1801-1809—but when was he at Monticello, and what is it like?
A. Throughout his lifetime, he spent long periods of time away from Monticello, but when he finally retired in 1809, he spent the rest of his life here. That’s when he really focused on creating this magnificent vegetable garden.
Just prior to his retirement he actually leased seven enslaved workers from a plantation nearby to dig out—to carve out—from the side of the mountain, this 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden. They labored for three years doing this, moving wagonload after wagonload of soil.
The garden really stands like a terrace overlooking his south orchard. It’s 80 feet wide, and it descends in three levels from west to east. It’s a magnificent garden, and supported by a stone wall that is over 10 feet at its highest point.
At the midpoint of the garden, at the 500-foot mark, there is a really spectacular garden pavilion that was constructed there. It’s a cubic structure, quite lovely, and a place to sit and contemplate and enjoy the garden, and the marvelous views from that location. You really are just perched on the edge of the Piedmont of Virginia.
Q. It’s a historic place, especially in that he was the President, and you have among his records his meticulous and very famous Garden Book—with details. He really put down every detail; he was much better than I am about that. [Video at top of page celebrated the 250th anniversary of the book, in 2016.]
A. [Laughter.] He did; he wrote quite a bit. He kept a garden diary beginning at the age of 23, and he continued making notations in this journal until 1824, just two years before he died. So it spans about a 60-year period.
And of course added to that garden diary, he also wrote thousands of letters that included discussions about his gardens, and he drew diagrams of his landscape and his planting plans. When he retired and really focused on his vegetable garden, he also kept what were called garden calendars, and they’re sort of like what we would call a spreadsheet today—with columns, and cells, where he would write when he planted what. [Page from Jefferson’s earliest journal, below, from Massachusetts Horticultural Society collection.]
His garden is laid out in squares, and the squares were numbered. Jefferson had a penchant for organization, and mathematics and geometry—so laying out the garden was really a joy for him. He really was hands-on in the garden. He spent time laying out the beds, and planning where seeds would be planted, and rotating crops and so forth.
Of course he had the enslaved gardeners to do a lot of the heavy labor, but he would definitely be on hand planning to sow his peas in early spring, and lettuce and so forth.
Q. And as if all that isn’t enough to know, or infer, about him and his practices and so forth [from his written records], at Monticello there is also archaeology being done to divine what all happened there, right?
A. Especially with our modern efforts to restore the gardens, we really precede all of our digging in the ground with thorough archaeological investigation. We have a staff of archaeologists here at Monticello, and they can read soil stains and determine where fruit trees were planted, and fence lines stood.
They excavated the entire length of the vegetable garden before it was restored, and they found out a lot about the stone wall that supported the garden that we really didn’t know before their excavations. So it is very well-studied before you actually go putting seed in the ground.
Q. You know from his records that he was very particular about which varieties he grew of which crop, and he didn’t tolerate poor performers, did he? [Laughter.]
A. It’s interesting to read his notes, because he wasn’t afraid to admit when he failed. Some years there would be a long list of failed crops, but he was ever the scientist and just keeping notes regardless. He would to grow the crop that he felt was superior, and discard the ones that he didn’t think met his standards.
It’s interesting that even some of the crops we have spent a long time trying to find and bring back to the garden—in some cases they were crops he just grew for a few years, then decided there were better ones.
I’m thinking particularly of the ‘Arikara’ bean [above] that Lewis and Clark brought back from the West, when they were on their voyage of discovery, the Lewis and Clark expedition. They were at Fort Mandan, a very cold winter in 1805. They really survived on crops that the native Indians provided for them—the Arikara and Hidatsa and Mandan tribes were very helpful in their survival.
So they brought back some of the beans from the tribes, and one was the ‘Arikara’ bean. Jefferson tried it, and he considered it to be a very good bean, but at a certain point he said he had another one that’s better than the ‘Arikara,’ and so he’d discard the ‘Arikara’ and just grow the other one. But we treasure this bean that we have been able to bring back to the garden, and it’s a very important one.
Q. Not just to the garden, but we should say also that Monticello also has a shop. By the way, I grow a Hidatsa bean—you mentioned the Hidatsa people.
A. Oh, the beautiful red one [below]?
Q. Yes, and I also have the ‘Hidatsa Shield’ bean that’s sort of yellow or tan and white—it’s fantastic. We could go off on beans because we’re bean-crazy people, I know.
So you look for these not only for the garden, but Monticello also has a shop and sells seeds and you strive to have “his” varieties or the equivalent—and that’s no easy task with the time that has passed since his years there. So it’s not literally always the same thing, unless it’s a species plant [rather than a cultivated variety].
A. Right, we are constantly scouring our sources—people who are saving these old varieties. Vegetables are one of the hardest to really get back to Jefferson’s time, because they’re mostly annuals, and they change yearly. Even if we have a plant that has the same name as Jefferson used, it may not be the same thing.
We have to determine plant by plant if we have the right thing, and preserving them is also a challenge. We are collecting things from on-site and out of the garden, and certain things we can reliably save, but others are prone to cross-pollinate, we are not as able to do that.
We certainly rely on other providers and suppliers that have larger growing facilities, but we do quite a bit here on-site. It’s quite impressive.
Q. It is impressive. Jefferson had a thing, I’ve read in some of his writings, for lettuce—and a conventional wisdom on how much to plant and how often. So let’s start with lettuce, or salad. He was into salad.
A. He really was. Some people claim that he was primarily a vegetarian. He said you should only eat meat as a condiment to your vegetables, and we know that salads were important on the menu throughout the year.
He once wrote a gardening calendar that was published—he didn’t sign it, but we knew it was written by Jefferson. His prescription was to sow a thimbleful of lettuce every Monday morning from February first to September first.
A. It’s kind of funny to imagine that—getting up every Monday morning and saying, “Oh, time to plant the lettuce!” They were very particular about harvesting the lettuce. A lot of people think lettuces get bitter in the summer, so why is he sowing lettuce all summer? But in Jefferson’s time people also ate boiled lettuce—it was cooked, and that changed the flavor, and they dressed it oils. When it was harvested to be eaten fresh, they were very particular about harvesting it in the early morning, and keeping it cool, on ice, throughout the day. So lettuce was a very important vegetable, probably more so than we think of it today.
Q. Any varieties that you still have to recommend?
A. One of our first success stories, you might say, was reintroducing the
‘Tennis Ball’ lettuce [above], one of Jefferson’s favorite varieties. Indeed, there must have been tennis balls in his day because that was what he called it. Who knew that tennis balls would be green today? [Laughter.]
We were able to track the seed down that was being stored at National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, back in the 1980s. My former boss, Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at that time, was able to locate it. They only give out a certain amount of seed from this laboratory, where the seeds are kept in cold storage and a controlled environment.
The first year—this was before I started working at Monticello—they grew a beautiful crop of this lettuce, and the director tasted it and said it was the best lettuce he’d ever tasted, and everyone had to eat it. Lo and behold, they ate the entire crop, before they realized it.
A. Yes. So Peter went back and got a few more seeds apologetically; it’s a great story. Every year since that time, we’ve been very successful in saving lettuce seed of this particular variety. It’s one of our popular ones, and sort of like a Boston bibb lettuce with a nice texture and moist, and makes a pretty little head. Of course we also have other varieties like the ‘Brown Dutch’ [below] and different ice lettuces that Jefferson grew, like the ‘Spotted Aleppo.’ There are a lot of these older varieties that are now becoming popular in gardens and historic seed catalogs.
Q. I’ll get out my thimble.
A. [Laughter.] Yes, get out your thimble.
Q. For me it will be sometime more in late March or early April, not February, because you are in Virginia.
A. And in fact his fall crop, sown in September, would go through the winter. That was an important crop to plant.
Q. Other things went in the salad bowl, that I also see in the catalog—some non-lettuces.
Q. It’s funny about the arugula, because it sort of became a rage in gardens in the most recent wave of vegetable-garden heyday, and you’d think it was just discovered.
A. A trendy new thing, right. They called it garden rocket in Jefferson’s day.
Q. Roquette or rocket, right.
A. It was a very distinct flavor, and added a nice bite to the salad, so that’s definitely one we certainly enjoy today in the garden, too.
Q. Let’s talk about beans—I think you and I both have a “bean thing,” [laughter] and that beans are a memory in your family, too, not just in your professional historical work.
A. When I grew up, my mother was a great vegetable gardener; she only grew vegetables. She preserved bean varieties that had been that been passed down through our family from Kentucky for generations, and definitely dated back to at least the mid-1800s. These were pole beans, and they were all named after my Grandmother Ivy, or Aunt Olive—and they were really different beans.
The thing that was distinctive about them is that they were a pole bean, and made a long pod, but you wanted to allow the beans to get large in that pod but the pod itself would still be tender.
A lot of these beans when they get large like that, the pod gets very woody and you just have to shell it. But these stayed tender, and these beans are really remarkable. My sister has been growing them every year now. She’s living in Kansas, and has been the family bean preservationist.
But in my childhood I can still remember my mother holding all these bean seeds in her hands, and she’d tell me the names of all the different ones. Some were mottled and brown and striped; some were white and they just had a dent in them. I just learned how to identify them.
Q. You mentioned at Monticello that they grew ‘Arikara,’ for example, and I think Jefferson grew cowpeas, too, yes?
A. He did, and he grew asparagus bean, which is like a cowpea. His beans would grow 3 feet long.
Q. I think that’s an under-utilized bean; it’s quite delicious.
A. Field peas or cow peas are just great, and again, you cook them some with pods and some shelled and they get a kind of saucy juice when you cook them in a little water. Lovely.
Q. What about fava beans; were they part of the palette?
A. They were, and Jefferson called them Windsor beans—that was more common, and it’s a European variety.
Q. I was going to say, it sounds like something from the old country.
A. It is. Most beans are New World, even ‘Scarlet Runner,’ but this is an Old World species and it hates the heat. You probably do better with it in your location. We have to plant it quite early because by the heat of June it is already starting to wilt. It is the broad bean or fava bean, and ‘Brown Windsor’ was another name for it. It’s a bean that you definitely shell, and then there is another skin on that bean that you have to shell off, too.
Q. It’s a lot of work to do fava beans; it’s like double-cleaning. [Laughter.]
A. It’s a very meaty bean, I think; it’s very substantive.
Q. I love seeing the towers of ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans on the Monticello website. Today gardeners think, “Oh, I’ll have a ‘Scarlet Runner’ bean for my hummingbirds,” but you guys like—forget it, you’re all out, and grow tons.
A. It’s another one that likes the cooler part of the summer here. It does well in cooler environments; in England, it grows really beautifully. I always laugh because every time we get visitors from England, I can just tell they will say that the ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans are lovely in the freezer. [Laughter.] They shell them and freeze them. The beans themselves are just beautiful.
A. So they’re eaten more in England than they are here. There is also a bicolored variety—a white and scarlet variety—and sometimes you’ll get a pure white variety, which is kind of a mutation, I guess.
Q. I have only seen pictures of it.
Let’s talk about some of the oddities I was delighted to see in the Monticello catalog, like sea kale, which I have only seen growing near the coast of England, in a garden setting. Crambe maritima, I think it’s called.
A. Yes, and there is also Crambe cordifolia, which is more of an ornamental.
Q. Yes, and that’s a statuesque plant—a big, big guy.
A. The maritima grows about 2 or 2-1/2 feet tall, and it’s a perennial kale. I don’t think it’s as happy here in our heavy clay Davidson loam soil of Virginia.
A. It’s native to the coast of England and where it grows in sandy soils and I’m sure it has very deep roots, and I think they naturally blanch with the shifting sands in the coastal regions. But for us, we cover them with a pot…
Q. Like a cloche?
A. Like a cloche—an open-ended pot [above] with a lid in the spring as they sprout out of the ground. We’ve had these plants in the ground for like 30 years, and they are quite old.
A. But they keep soldiering on every year, and sprout out. Once the leaves stay pale under the cloches, under the terra cotta pots—once they get about 2 feet tall, or a foot and a half, we cut them and you can cook them. Jefferson said you dress them like asparagus; they used a lot of butter in cooking back then. So it would be a blanched vegetable that could be sautéed or roasted, I guess. It’s very good; a light spring green. And after they finish, and it starts to get warm, we leave the lids off and they grow.
They’re beautiful—they have that Crucifer flower, that four-petaled white flower.
Q. Like a froth.
One more quick one: the strawberry spinach, which I think is a Chenopodium.
A. It’s a pigweed, yes. It’s an unusual one. You can eat the leaves; they can be a spinach substitute in the summer. But the fruit that they make looks like warty strawberries, and is very showy. They have a nice texture. Basically what we have done is add them to salads, because they add color and texture—and a little bit of interesting flavor.
Q. I think it’s a North American native as well, Chenopodium capitatum.
A. That’s right, and it was used for dyes. The Native Americans used it to make a red dye. It’s an interesting leaf, kind of triangular-shaped.
more about monticello
- The Monticello seed catalog
- The Monticello website
- The annual Heritage Garden Festival in September
- General visiting information
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 23, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photos from Monticello website or its online catalog.)