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A passionate gardener, Thomas Jefferson believed plants can transform society
By Marianne Taylor
“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” —Thomas Jefferson
The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the University of Virginia, was also a highly knowledgeable gardener and farmer.
A man of many talents, he extolled the virtues of the agrarian life. He considered himself a farmer by profession. In Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, he documents his varied approaches to gardening—from landscape architecture and pleasure gardening, to horticultural science and teaching his grandchildren.
Evidence of Jefferson’s passion for gardening can be seen today in the restored gardens at Monticello in Virginia. The gardens are admired worldwide.
Jefferson’s love for horticulture was well-known. He inherited his family’s 2,000-acre plantation as a young man, designed a neo-classical house and planted flower gardens, grain and vegetable fields, fruit orchards and vineyards. He planted 24 beds of herbs and vegetables.
In his diary, Jefferson wasn’t afraid to admit his fair share of garden failures. It’s been said that he had a holistic view of the garden and knew that the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another. Jefferson wrote that if he failed 99 times out of 100 that one success was worth the 99 failures.
After planting his garden, he worked the land with family members, slaves and European workers. A meticulous, obsessive record-keeper, he kept a horticultural diary for 60 years, noting observations such as the degree of frost damage or when seeds were sown.
He was always interested in new crops and machinery and searching for more progressive ways to work his plantations. At Monticello, he grew 330 varieties of vegetables, 170 fruit varieties and had amazing gardens bursting with seasonal blooms and bounties of produce.
Jefferson’s delight in gardening, which was revealed in his correspondence with leading horticulturists worldwide, brought in wonderful curiosities such as peppers from Mexico, squash and broccoli from Italy, figs from France, and bean varieties collected from the Lewis and Clark expedition.
His love for family was equally important. His affectionate letters to his family included sweet tributes to his tulips, strawberries and sugar maples awaiting his arrival back home.
Thanks to his experiments with rare and exotic food from around the world, he brought the nation seeds and produce such as sesame seeds, chick peas, sea kale, tomatoes and eggplant.
As a patriot with a mission and love for his farm, he once wrote, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture…”
For Jefferson, farming was perhaps the foremost means for social change; he believed that plants could transform society.
Toward the end of his life it was difficult for him to walk, so he would tour his farm by horseback to do his daily garden inspections. He found the garden healthful to his body, mind and affairs. “But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
No matter if you’re young or old, it’s never too late to plant a garden. Take baby steps and start with a small container garden recording your daily observations. Watch your plants progress and see your garden thrive with daily care. Like Jefferson, don’t be afraid of failures—one success is worth any failure.
Want to learn more about gardening? Join us at Reata Park and Event Center at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28 for a free class in Bare Root Gardening. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on future classes, visit www.goinnative.net.
Marianne Taylor, of San Juan Capistrano, is the founder and executive director of Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens, a 501(c)(3) teaching gardening and life skills as a way of empowering, engaging and connecting people. Goin Native focuses on educating local families, special needs adults, seniors, at-risk youth and members of the military.