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Thomas Jefferson, agricultural researcher

Jefferson's Garden
Thomas Jefferson's garden provided food for the Monticello household and also served as an experiment station.
Thomas Jefferson's genius included agricultural research.

“Agriculture … is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to wealth, good morals and happiness….” — Thomas Jefferson, 1787, in a letter to George Washington, from Paris.

Jefferson considered himself a farmer. Writing to Thomas Pinckney from Monticello in 1795, he said, “I am entirely a farmer, soul and body, never scarcely admitting a sentiment on any other subject.”

I suppose I remembered something of Jefferson’s penchant for agriculture from one of the biographies I read years ago, but a side trip to Monticello on our way back from the recent American Peanut Research and Education Society annual meeting at Williamsburg, Va., reminded me of how devoted he was, not only to producing crops for sale and personal use, but also as an opportunity to experiment with plant species, production techniques, and soil.

The grounds and gardens of Monticello served as an agricultural experiment station of sorts. According to a visitor’s guide, Jefferson’s vegetable garden included “330 varieties of some 99 species of vegetables and herbs. This was a revolutionary American garden and Jefferson’s most enriching horticultural achievement.”

After Pat and I toured the architectural marvel that is Monticello, my next point of interest was the garden. Sadly, specimens growing here now are not direct descendants of the plants Jefferson grew more than 200 years ago, but most are heirloom varieties, secured from seed banks, and represent the era.

Cultural practicies

Our tour guide explained that Jefferson experimented with many species, but he also paid attention to cultural practices. He used cover crops and rotation to maintain and improve the soil.

We saw flax and bearded wheat bundled in sheaves; several types of tomatoes, some with oddly shaped fruit; turnips, kale and other greens that seem only vaguely similar to current varieties; melons, potatoes, and asparagus were recognizable.

In the distance we saw fields where Jefferson probably grew cotton for use on the farm and wheat as a cash crop. The guide said he switched from tobacco to wheat because tobacco was so hard on the soil.

The garden site lies in a different planting zone than the grounds just a few yards higher up the mountain on which Monticello is built, the guide explained. Jefferson chose and prepared the site to take advantage of reflection from the hill behind and to capture the sun from the front.

He also understood the capricious nature of agriculture. In a letter likely written in 1813 to an unknown recipient, he wrote: “So that in the lotteries of human life you see that even farming is but gambling.”

I’ve found much to admire in Thomas Jefferson’s many contributions to our country over the years. His love of agriculture adds to my veneration.

(The quotations above are from The Quotable Jefferson, collected and edited by John P. Kaminski.)

TAGS: Conservation
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