The Thomas Jefferson Garden Book

From a young age, the author of the Declaration of Independence was also an avid gardener. Sixty years of notes, letters, instructions, and requests are recorded in the Thomas Jefferson garden book.
By Douglass Lea
February/March 1999
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From age 22 to age 83, Thomas Jefferson maintained a meticulously detailed garden book.

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Addressing a group of Nobel Prize winners, President Kennedy announced, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone." The audience appreciated the humorous remark; a description of Jefferson in the simple act of eating would indeed have shown a prodigious mind at work.

Jefferson ate vegetables, peas in particular, from all corners of the world. Dining alone gave him the opportunity to make copious notes of his own gardening experiments. "I have often thought," he wrote in 1811, "that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth...."

When other obligations kept him away from Monticello, his home in the Virginia Piedmont, Jefferson would use free time to draw garden plans and conduct a worldwide correspondence on matters horticultural. He traded exotic seeds with president George Washington while serving as Washington's Secretary of State, and the two men spent hours discussing their experiments. On May 12, 1826, in the last entry published in the exhaustive Thomas Jefferson Garden Book and only a month and a half before his death at 83, he wrote a brief letter requesting the consignment of a missing box of exotic French seeds, "...the sooner the better as the season is fast advancing."

By the time of Jefferson's death, the orchards and gardens at Monticello formed the vanguard of fruit and vegetable research in the South, if not the entire nation. This scientific juggernaut had its origins in a simple observation. On March 30,1766, Jefferson, 22, opened his Garden Book with the following note: "Purple hyacinth begins to bloom." Once turned on, his eye caught almost every change in the environment, and whatever he saw rarely escaped being recorded. Over the next 60 years, notes, letters, instructions, and requests flowed and tumbled over each other in the book. The man's mind could not be quieted.

His gardens are still meticulously maintained to this day.

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