The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.
Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, is famous for its architecture. Jefferson designed it, built it and lived there almost his entire life. It was to Monticello he brought his bride and it was there his children were born. He left Monticello to attend the Philadelphia Convention where he wrote the Declaration of Independence. It was Monticello he returned to when his wife became ill. He mourned her death at Monticello and then left it to become the United States ambassador to France. It was Monticello he returned to when the French Revolution erupted, only to leave Monticello again when he was elected to the presidency of the United States. He returned to Monticello after his second term in office was completed. Throughout all of Jefferson's coming and goings, Monticello remained a working farm. Its fields, orchards and gardens provided for those that lived there as well as providing cash for the farm coffers.
Throughout his entire life, Jefferson was a passionate naturalist and amateur botanist. He would be constantly on the prowl for new plants or new seeds or new trees. He had a correspondence with other avid planters that encircled the globe. He was willing to experiment with anything that caught his fancy - be it an olive tree from the Middle East, silk worms from Asia or rare rose cultivars from France. There was nothing in the plant world that the man didn't find worthy to plant and watch it grow.
When I moved to Virginia many years ago, I was anxious to see Monticello. I had been to other historic homes, like Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, our first president, and although the architecture there was grand; the gardens and grounds did not inspire. The same was true at Williamsburg and the Breakers in Rhode Island. I wondered, in their passion to restore these historic sites, if the preservationists forgot to get the whole thing historically accurate, namely the surrounding landscape, including the gardens. I hoped that Monticello, the home of one of the most enthusiastic of our nation's gardeners, would be different.
It was a hot day in May when I drove to Monticello. I left my car in the parking lot, paid for my ticket with a ten-dollar bill so I would get a crisp two-dollar bill in change (the $2 bill has Jefferson's picture on it) and boarded the bus that lumbered slowly up the mountain. As we neared the summit, I knew why Jefferson selected this place to build his home. You can see for 360 degrees the surrounding countryside and if you squinted hard on a clear day you could make out the outlines of the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. This was another of Jefferson's great passions.
We queued up to enter Monticello. You climb some brick stairs flanked on either side by huge clumps of evergreens of some unknown lineage. I had the same trees on my property and to this day do not know what they are. Slowly we inched our way up a brick walkway. The front lawn had no trees, no bushes, or flower borders. I assumed it was to prevent any detraction from the front of the house. I doubted it looked like that in Jefferson's time.
The tour of the house is limited to the first floor. The entry way is filled with artifacts brought back by Lewis and Clark from their famous expedition of the West. Here one sees buffalo robes, war bonnets and so much more of the west. Next was his library that was overflowing with books, many of gardens, plants, seeds and general botany. His bedroom was simple and I felt a strong sense of the man and his family here. It was in this room his children were born, his wife died and eventually where he, too, died. All of these rooms had many windows and one could imagine Jefferson looking out at the gardens, forests and fields beyond.
I exited the house from the back and was surprised at the bareness of the landscape. There was a small pool, a circular walkway with a border of rather non-descript annuals. So where are the remains of Jefferson's imagination, creativity and experiments, I asked myself? I wandered down to where the slave cabins were, and it was here that small signs appeared describing small plots of kitchen gardens and clumps of fruit trees. Now we were closer to what I was interested in. I moved from sign to sign reading about crops - their success and failures. At one time there was a huge two-acre vegetable garden that was broken up into 24 squares. The plants were planted according to what was harvested. Root vegetables would be in one place, climbing plants in another and so. Standing at the garden wall I tried to imagine what it looked like filled with plants and the soon to become bounty of the earth. It looked so desolate to me.
As I wandered around the estate, stopping to read about this plant or that tree, I compared Monticello to Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon was a highly successful farm in its day. Martha and George Washington planted what grew well in Virginia and reaped the benefits of that choice. On the other hand, Jefferson experimented with everything and anything. Where Mount Vernon was organized and highly efficient, Monticello came across as a hodge podge of this and that, yet, I found serenity on this mountaintop. The soil was not loamy, but it was not the hard, red clay of the Deep South. I found myself wondering about what those vegetable gardens looked like 200 years ago. Perhaps it was just a lack of funding that prevented the restoration of the estate. At Mount Vernon, all the plantings were heirloom. The preservationists there had tried to recreate a moment in time.
I stopped at the Monticello Garden Shop on my way down the mountain. I was not expecting much, but I was stunned to find plants that were historically accurate. In the middle of the forest was this open space with old wooden benches covered with pots, planters and seed packets. I was in heaven wandering up and down the aisles looking and touching leaves, flowers, and stems. Everything looked not only healthy, but also hardy. These were not plants that had been altered to produce more flowers or more fruit. These were plants Jefferson would have recognized in his gardens.
There was so much to choose from and since the sun was setting I picked several plants that were totally foreign to me. One was called false Indigo (Baptisia australis). The name appealed to me and it had these silver green leaves that were so unlike anything I had seen before. It was years later that I would learn that this plant, that still has so little information known about it, would be part of a research program as a potential immune system booster and that its leaflets stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. It is not the plant used to create the famous indigo color dye for jeans. It is native to America and grows in a wide variety of zones.
When I moved into my seventy plus year old house on a hill in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I had part of the large backyard torn up and I put in a fan-shaped rose garden and a square herb garden. My father-in-law and I bordered and quartered the herb garden in brick. In the center, I placed a Virginia Metalworker's birdbath...the one with the kissing birds. I had planted a variety of herbs in each of the quarters - one for culinary use, one for everlastings, one for scents and one of odds and ends. When I arrived home from Monticello, I grabbed my spade, gardening gloves and trowel and proceeded to transplant my finds.
Over the next few years I watched this false Indigo with amazement. It was perhaps thirteen inches high when I planted it. It looked so scraggly when it went into the ground that day, but it planted its roots and started to grow. In the spring, it would have tiny blue-blue flowers that would catch your eye when you walked out the back door. And then in late summer, these huge pods, about 2-3 inches in size would appear. They would rattle in the fall winds and eventually drop off, splitting open and putting more seeds down. Birds were attracted to them and the birdbath.
I have left that herb garden in Virginia but am so fortunate in have a correspondence friendship with the present owners who update me on the gardens as well as send me indigo pods in the fall. When they arrive I am always reminded of that wonderful day I spent at Monticello. I always hold those pods in my hand and am transported back to that wonderful mountain and Monticello. The link over time and distance is strong. I think of that man who loved the land and what it gave forth.
It has been many years since I have been to Monticello, but I understand they are now making it look like it did in Jefferson's day, outside the house. There have been attempts to plant heirloom materials throughout the estate. Now when people go there, they will start to see what Jefferson saw. Also other historic places are following suit and making strides in presenting public grounds, gardens and orchards that are historically accurate. There is a minor boomlet in heirloom seeds and plants and that only bodes well for all gardeners.
There is now the Center for Historic Plants, established in 1987, that offers historic seeds, plants and bulbs, as well as gardening supplies, gifts and books. They have developed and offer educational programs that go in-depth with specific plants as well as the on-going restoration of the Monticello gardens, orchards and forests. The Center's headquarters and nursery facilities contain many plant species from Jefferson's time and interest. In recent years Monticello has begun to offer garden tours much like the house tours.
I think it is so wonderful that the Society for Monticello has recognized the need to restore the landscape surrounding Monticello. The house is lovely, but one must see the land and its bounty as Jefferson saw it. Only by experiencing this, do we get a true sense of this passionate gardener and farmer, one of our Founding Fathers.
About the Author
Sue La Rosa gardens in zone 4 - Minnesota. Her passions are roses, orchids, herbs somedays, perennials and trees.
Come from a long line of serious gardeners. She is forever humbled by the whole process of nature and eternally grateful I can be part of it.