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Food Sunday: Where Independence Day and Food Intersect

Thomas Jefferson died in 1826 – but he and Aunt Toby are gardening siblings under the skin. This is a ghost that if he visited Chez Siberia today (middle of the night, out in the garden or up on the hill with the chickens, lambs and turkeys), would definitely pull up a chair and want to discuss the garden, what works, and what definitely does not. Lessons from Jefferson’s Monticello Garden

Jefferson was a gardener who had a lot of experience with failure, but he also has a lot of lessons for gardeners today:

Don’t be afraid to try something. Jefferson traveled all over and brought hundreds of cuttings, plants, and seeds home to Monticello to try out. Sometimes they worked…and many times they did not. But he was never afraid to try, to see if there was something of benefit, an advantage, to a foreign plant. Remember, this is the guy who as president made, as part of the reparations from the Barbary Pirates, a flock of Tunis sheep be brought to the United States, to try to improve the sheep stocks in the United States which had been cut off from ‘fresh blood’ by the Revolutionary War. He had read of what good mothers tunis sheep are, how much milk they could produce, how good the wool was and being the husbandman he was, he felt that they could improve the flocks especially in the South.

Don’t be afraid to share. Jefferson knew that if he gave away some of what he also planted, if it did not work, he could always go back to his friends for survivors. “This “seed-y missionary,” as Mr. Hatch(the director of the garden at Monticello) calls Jefferson, collected seeds and cuttings from around the world and distributed them to others, only to have them die in his own garden.

“Jefferson would kill the thing at Monticello and go back to [his friend] George Divers and say, ‘What happened to those black-eyed peas I brought back from France in 1789?’ ” Mr. Hatch said, referring to Jefferson’s neighbor, a much better gardener who usually won their pea-growing contest.”

Keep a record. For most of us, the best we can come up with is a diagram of what we planted and where we planted it. Jefferson kept meticulous calendars and records of his gardens from 1766 to 1824, which form the foundation of how Monticello’s gardens are planted and kept today.

Be open to ‘new’ techniques. In Virginia at the time, gardeners would only sow seeds in the cool spring and fall, abandoning the planting in the summers. “Jefferson gardened year-round, planting early in heat-collecting beds along the mountain slope and growing heat-loving crops like okra, melons and tomatoes during the scorching summers. He also grew cool-season lettuces long past their time in the low-lying, damper areas farther down the mountain.” So, look for microclimates on your property to extend your season, as well as using hot beds (which in Jefferson’s day would be have been created with a thick layer of heavily rotted horse manure) and cold frames.

Declare your own Independence Day: Look at your yard and find even one strip of 3 feet x 10 feet on a sunny side of the house (especially if you have water handy) and start thinking about what you’ll grow in it next year – or even this fall.

(photo of Monticello courtesy of nigelfj)

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Snarky housewife from Upstate New York. Into gardening, fiber arts, smallholder farming.