Gardening at Monticello with Pat Brodowski

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by Bill McChesney

Every gardener has a dream garden, a destination they long to visit. For many vegetable gardeners, that place is Monticello. To stroll through Thomas Jefferson’s garden terrace and gaze south across the orchard and vineyard is a dream come true.

Monticello, where Pat Brodowski was the head vegetable gardener until recently, has been restored to Thomas Jefferson’s original design for the property. The grounds owe their current splendor to the efforts of modern staff, as well as the enslaved people who laid the foundations and did most of the work during Jefferson’s day.

woman profile smiling

Every year, half a million people walk the grounds of Monticello outside Charlottesville, Virginia. They include famous people, such as renowned British gardener Monty Don, host of the long-running BBC program “Gardeners’ World.” Guests travel to this National Historic Landmark to view the home of the United States’ third president, and to tour the grounds designed by one of the nation’s earliest horticultural influencers. Jefferson’s plantation spanned 5,000 acres at its height during the late 1700s, and was maintained by more than 100 enslaved laborers. The vegetable and flower gardens, located adjacent to Jefferson’s palatial home, were nestled in a 1,000-foot-long terrace near the cabins of the enslaved workers. Jefferson was active in the garden, especially in his later years.

These days, you can find Monticello’s gardeners cultivating the earth, hauling compost, setting poles for beans or tomatoes, seeding flats for succession crops, surveying and repairing deer damage, and more. Brodowski had the duty and honor of tending the kitchen garden for more than a decade, starting in 2009. Her morning began by loading tools and plants into a golf cart and checking out the garden for damage of any kind. The daily checklist was invariably long. “You don’t really get a break,” she says.

But it’s not all an uphill battle. Brodowski explains, “Monticello soil is so incredibly beautiful and productive. If a bean hasn’t sprouted in four days, you just plant it again, because it should be up already; it’s such an amazing garden.” Brodowski says Monticello’s mountaintop microclimate is a full Zone warmer than the surrounding Zone 7 countryside, thanks to the site’s uplifting air currents and orientation to the sun. The soil has also been enriched by 30 years of composting and amendments. The payoff is obvious to anyone passing through the garden. When she was head gardener, Brodowski planted cherry tomatoes to provide snacks for strolling visitors. She says, “If they can eat something…–…have some kind of tactile experience…–…they remember the garden.”

red brick with front white columns trim and flower beds

Crops not plucked by snacking travelers are used in demonstrations, served at the Visitor Center café, or allowed to go to seed. The latter are distributed to other historic sites, or sold to the public for planting in home plots.

Today, vegetables grown in Monticello’s 2-acre modern garden must be historically accurate as well as attractive, and the head gardener is responsible for maintaining that accuracy. The site is somewhat unique, because Jefferson left detailed accounts in farm and garden journals kept throughout his lifetime. The journals contain specific information about vegetable, fruit, and flower cultivars; where plants were sown in the garden; seasonal weather conditions; and other details. While working at Monticello, Brodowski discovered many interesting vegetables by reading these journals and doing follow-up research. For example, she learned that the “White Beet” grown by Jefferson didn’t form a beetroot. By investigating turn-of-the-18th-century horticultural reference books, Brodowski discovered Jefferson’s “White Beet” to be the same as our modern Swiss chard. Absent from Monticello’s vegetable gardens for many decades, Swiss chard is now grown on the property.

Although the journals are fascinating, they give incomplete information about the nuts-and-bolts of gardening in Jefferson’s time. “He doesn’t tell us how he does anything,” says Brodowski. Invariably, additional research is required into gardening techniques during Jefferson’s day, such as methods the estate’s hired Scottish horticulturist Robert Bailey may have imparted to enslaved Monticello gardener Wormley Hughes. One example Brodowski recalls is finding the phrase “egg plum” indexed under apples in Jefferson’s journals, but research revealed that the tree on the plantation was actually the Indian jujube (Ziziphus jujuba). Jefferson collected exotic plants and trees from around the world, and enslaved families on the property grew vegetables and fruits of African origin…–…okra and watermelon among them.

cut dried plants hanging upside down

Besides figurative digging into historical archives, literal digging also takes place at Monticello, often with surprising results. Brodowski recalls when archaeologists excavated the garden terrace to the original soil from Jefferson’s lifetime, and discovered a 70-degree vertical wall instead of the modern 45-degree slope. They also found unfaced stacked stones that weren’t mentioned in Jefferson’s records. Brodowski also remembers when construction called for the removal of a yard of soil from the foundation of the site’s North Pavilion. The archeology team sifted the soil to reveal 40,000 artifacts for future study, including toothbrushes, scissors, buttons, brushes, and many other bits of everyday life predating 1808. She recalls that the archeologists found seeds, such as Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), and seeds from the brassica and aster plant families.

Twinleaf plant, garden, Virginia, Usa

Before taking on the gardens at Monticello, Brodowski cut her teeth in historic research at Carroll County Farm Museum in Maryland, designing interpretive tours and teaching interpreters. Brodowski had always gardened, but this open-air museum introduced her to gardening in a historical context, with its Pennsylvania Dutch Four-Square plot. “We had a historic sensory smell and sniff garden,” she says. Brodowski and her volunteer artisan demonstrators formed a close-knit museum family. “On days when I cooked on the hearth, we shared the meal after the tours,” she says. “I ensured all the guides wore period-correct clothing, and learned the traditional arts well enough to teach our interpreters. I was fascinated to study all of this, and make it viable, and living.”

row of large leaf veg and upside down terra cotta pots

Brodowski’s dedication to living deliberately extends to her personal life, where she cooks in cast iron in a log cabin in the woods. “I enjoy the ingenuity and simplicity of old tools,” she says. She learned to build a Windsor-style rocking chair from a section of log in her backyard. And she learned how to fiddle when she noticed her son’s violin was lying unused around the house. Brodowski also grows her own cotton, flax, and other natural fibers, which she colors with natural dyes collected and grown herself. She spins and weaves on several looms she’s collected throughout the years. Brodowski sums up her philosophy, and her life: “Don’t limit yourself.” The retiree appreciates that her career has been built on the generosity of others: “Like heirloom seeds, which are passed from one gardener to another, gardening advice and plant histories are shared among garden researchers…–…and this sharing has been the basis for my education.”

Andrew Weidmen first met Pat Brodowski while selling apple trees at a local museum event near his home in Pennsylvania. Pat has since assisted Andrew in writing about garden history.

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