“But tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Even in old age, Thomas Jefferson never thought of himself as the accomplished garden scientist that he was, but more of a zealous amateur in pursuit of his lifelong passion. The vegetable garden at Monticello, his home near Charlottesville, Virginia, was one of America’s first experimental gardens. Although Jefferson’s garden was a significant source of food for his plantation, it served primarily as a laboratory where he experimented with vegetables gathered from all over the world. According to Jefferson, “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

We can’t say with certainty that he introduced any specific vegetable into American culinary horticulture, but he grew many vegetables that were rare and unusual at the turn of the 19th century.

Many of the vegetables that we commonly grow today – tomatoes, okra, peppers, eggplant, peanuts and asparagus – were extremely uncommon in colonial America. He also collected specimens brought back by the Lewis and Clark Expedition from the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.      

Colonial Americans gardened the same way most Europeans did. The cooler and cloudier European climate called for the use of hotbeds and greenhouses to grow a limited variety of cool season crops. These burdensome practices were labor intensive and inefficient.

By using the scientific method, he hoped to find the most efficient way to garden. Never afraid of failure, he was quick to recognize what didn’t work, and just as quick to move on. He discovered what grew best by eliminating what didn’t.

“The failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another,” He wrote. He kept a meticulous garden diary for 60 years in which he documented all of his observations.         

Monticello means “little mountain” in Italian. The Monticello vegetable garden was carved from the south-facing side of a hill. The excavation required the removal of 200,000 cubic feet of hard red clay. This enormous task took seven men three years to accomplish using a single mule and cart. The terraced hillside location created a warm microclimate that extended the growing season two additional months.

The two-acre garden was 1,000 feet long by 80 feet wide and organized according to which part of the plant was harvested – fruits, roots or leaves. Jefferson grew more than 180 varieties of 90 different herbs and vegetables. Jefferson planted his garden in succession, providing a continuous year-round harvest.

Just below the vegetable garden was an eight-acre fruit orchard, two vineyards and numerous berry plots. However impressive this all was, we can’t overlook the fact that the author of the Declaration of Independence constructed his revolutionary garden with the forced labor of enslaved African Americans. In fact, the entire operation of Monticello was dependent on slave labor and indentured servants. This was the Jeffersonian paradox.         

Use the Monticello website to help plan your own garden. Heirloom plants and seeds are available for purchase online. The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants was established in 1986. They collect, preserve and distribute historic plant varieties documented through the 19th century. The gardens at Monticello are a must-see attraction for any gardener. The historic site is open year-round. The best time to visit is spring and fall. 

Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at rnlyes@hotmail.com