Peter Hatch | Director of Gardens and Grounds, Monticello

Peter Hatch is the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello. He is responsible for the efforts to restore and maintain the landscaping, vegetable gardens, vineyard and orchards of Monticello in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s own practices. He has lectured nationally and written a number of books and articles on gardening at Monticello.

“...Jefferson's interest in gardening really rose from this truly wide-eyed curiousity about the natural world.”

Head and Heart Letter

  What do the gardens at Monticello tell you about Jefferson?
Well, I think that Jefferson's interest in gardening really rose from this truly wide-eyed curiousity about the natural world. I that even the site for Monticello was chosen not only for its obvious eminence and its glorious views of the central Virginia countryside, but also for its intimacy, for what Jefferson called, "the workhouse of nature." He said, "How sublime to look down upon the workhouse of nature, clouds, lightening, hail, thunder, all fabricated at our feet!" And I think the workhouse image is a very convenient one. I think that the landscape for Thomas Jefferson was very much a workhouse. And the gardens at Monticello became this laboratory. And Jefferson himself was very much the scientist as he observed and defined seemingly all the natural phenomena that was taking place around him, the wind direction or the blooming dates of wildflowers or whatever. And it was through the gardening process that he was really able to participate in the emotions of this physical world, whether grafting peachwood or sowing cabbage seeds with his daughters and granddaughters. It was really through gardening that his experiments bore fruit, that his landscape assumed shape and form and color. And this whole drama of the natural world began to unfold under what was really his personal direction. Jefferson wrote to the early American portrait painter, Charles Wilson Peale, and he said, "though an old man, I am but a young gardener." And I think that Jefferson was a young gardener in a lot of ways. When he'd say, "there's not a shoot of grass that springs uninteresting to me." I think this is hardly any testament to any horticultural wizardry but rather a reflection of Jefferson's truly almost childlike appreciation of the natural things that were going on around him.

I think Jefferson in some ways is sort of an ambiguous figure in the mind of the American public. Some Jefferson biographers, particularly John Dos Passos and Bernard Mayo have talked about "The Head and the Heart." And that was a reference to a personal dialogue Jefferson had when he was living in Paris in which the two sides of his personality really argue their case, the head representing the man of science and reason and rationality while the heart represented the man of passion and imagination and so forth. Now I think there's few subjects that reflect the head and the heart as effectively as gardening. On the one hand you see this garden scientist cultivating 270 varieties of fruit and 150 varieties of vegetables. On the other hand you see a man who used gardening as a way to relate to people. I think gardening in some ways was sort of a vehicle for social intercourse for Thomas Jefferson. Some writers, Fred Nichols and Ralph Griswold in their book, Thomas Jefferson: Landscape Architect, talked about how Jefferson practiced a humanized horticulture that enhanced his personal relationships. And one sees this in the numerous letters that Jefferson wrote in which he would often preface letters on the future of the republic with a discussion of how his seeds and plants were doing. So I think you see in gardening both the head and the heart, both the scientist and also very much the personal and the human Thomas Jefferson.

“...Jefferson has been described as almost a compulsive recordkeeper....”

  What are some of the experiments that he conducted in the garden?
I think that Jefferson has been described as almost a compulsive recordkeeper and you can see this in his memoranda books which were a daily financial account of virtually every day of his 83 year lifetime. His weather memoranda book included daily notations on the minimum and maximum temperatures and the blooming dates of wildflowers. Jefferson wrote something like 19,000 letters in his lifetime and scholars have wondered how he ever got anything done, he was so busy writing it all down. But the same was true in the garden. Jefferson's Garden Book is truly a remarkable document in which one really sees Jefferson as, sort of this garden scientist recording how many Carolina beans would fill a quart jar which would in turn plant so many feet of row in his garden. And you can't help but notice in this garden diary Jefferson's almost unflinching attention to seeds not coming up and crops not germinating. And in some ways I think in the history of American gardening, few gardeners have failed as often or at least confessed to failure as often as Thomas Jefferson. But what's fascinating about this was that Jefferson had what people might today call a sort of wholistic approach to the gardening process. He said that the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another. When the Hessian fly was devouring his wheat crop, he was much more concerned about the life cycle of this destructive insect rather than the fact that his wheat crop was about to disappear. When his granddaughter was planting cabbages one year, she complained to her grandfather that the insects were devouring the plants as fast as she could set them out in the garden and Jefferson responded by saying the problem with the plants was that they were growing in lean soil. And he said that winter the two of them would cover the entire garden with a heavy coating of manure. He said when plants are growing in rich soil, they won't turn "bid defiance," in his words to all sorts of insects and diseases and droughts and so forth. So he was really carrying the banner of what we call the organic gardening movement two hundred years ago. He also believed, I think, in this somewhat wholesome balance of the cultivated garden on the one hand and wild nature on the other. Sometimes today as we garden in central Virginia through a summertime of heat and humidity and weeds and insects, we often use military images to describe the gardening process. It's like war. And I think it's very comforting to fall back upon, in some ways, the wisdom of Jefferson and his approach to the gardening process.

First Plan of Monticello

  Would you consider him a good gardener?
I think that the history of gardening at Monticello is not so much a testament to any sort of horticultural skill or wizardry but I think it's rather a testament to the Jefferson spirit. In the Garden Book, Jefferson talks a great deal about planting things. He set out 1,200 fruit trees in the south orchard alone. But rarely does he talk about how he took care of them. In some ways he was sort of the ultimate planter. And I think the history of gardening at Monticello is sort of a testament to his stewardship, to his example. You see these very very American traits: this innocence and this expansiveness and this idealism toward the gardening process. These very very American traits, I think. So I don't know if Jefferson was a great gardener or not. I think perhaps the point is more that he tried and he failed and he believed in it and it tells alot about him and a little bit about us.

  Tell us how he related to his family and his neighbors through his garden.
I think if you read the letters in the published Garden Book, you see this constant garden gossip threading its way through these letters. Jefferson would often chide his granddaughters for their inattention to the wallflowers around the house while they, in turn, would relate to their grandfather the latest gardening dramas that were taking place. And I think that, for Jefferson, plants were a means of relating to people. In the same way that men today might talk about baseball, Jefferson would relate to people by talking about how his plants and seeds were doing. And he would often preface letters on the future of the republic with discussion of how his seeds and bulbs were doing. And I think there was this very real humanized horticulture, this union of gardening and sociability throughout the gardening process as revealed in the documentary evidence we have.

One of the real famous stories is the stories of Jefferson and his spring pea contest. Every spring he would have a contest with his neighbors to see who could bring the first English pea to table. The winner would then have the losers over for a community supper that included a feast on the winning dish of peas. Jefferson in fact rarely won the contest. There was a neighbor named George Divers who pretty much regarded himself as the king of the pea contest and in 1816, Jefferson brought the first pea to table but refused to divulge the fact to Mr. Divers in fear of rocking the pride of his friend. But the gardens in Monticello hardly existed in any sort of horitculture vacuum, but were really nourished generously by a whole society of Virginia and American and international gardeners.

“... he described the succession of bloom in the flower gardens through the seasons as being very much like the acts in a play.”

  Tell us how he viewed flowers in the flower garden.
I think that there was a lot of poetry when Jefferson talked about gardening and particularly in the flower gardens with his daughters and his granddaughters. For example, he described the succession of bloom in the flower gardens through the seasons as being very much like the acts in a play. And he talked of how the tulips would come up and perform their show and receive their applause and retire to the sidelines and be replaced later in the season by the irises and so on and so forth through the season. And he described the flowers themselves as being like what he called "the belles of the day who after flowering retire to the more interesting office of reproducing their like." There's just this great poetry when Jefferson talked about gardening and the gardening process.

  The garden pavilion-tell us about it and how he used it and why he would go there.
The garden pavilion was constructed at the midpoint of the 1000 foot long kitchen garden. And it was perched rather precariously atop that garden wall, in fact. And the story is that the pavilion was blown down in a rather violent windstorm in the late 1820's. The story also is that it was a favorite place for Jefferson to read in the cool of the evening, to survey the grand prospects of piedmont Virginia and perhaps also see how things in his garden were coming along-whether his peas were sprouting or whether his asparagus was ready to be cut for the table.

  Talk about the spring of 1807-politically what was going on and how did he relate to the garden?
One of the most difficult periods of Jefferson's presidency was in late March and early April of 1807. Jefferson was going through one of his periodic headaches that demanded he lock himself up in a black room for hours and even days at a time. He favorite son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph was really direly ill and Jefferson was also going through the stress of Aaron Burr's treason trial-certainly one of the most difficult periods of his presidency. But this is also one of the most productive times for designs for his retirement to Monticello in terms of the garden. In early April of 1807, Jefferson sketched his plan for the oval flower beds that were to be placed in the corners of the angles of the house. And in late March, he sketched his plan for his northeast and southwest vineyards which involved the planting of as many as 27 different varieties of European grapes-perhaps the best documented vineyard planting we have from this country before 1850. So this most difficult period during his presidency, you see what Jefferson was doing. He was planning for his retirement to the gardens of Monticello, showing I think very clearly how gardening for Jefferson was sort of a retreat from perhaps the slings and arrows of political life.

“Jefferson said that the greatest service which could be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

  If a visitor came to Monticello and left without strolling the gardens, what would they miss knowing about Thomas Jefferson?
They would miss that he was a sort of a garden scientist and extreme recordkeeper. Jefferson said that the greatest service which could be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture. And Monticello was really a botanic garden, an experimental station of new and unusual introductions were brought literally from around the world, from the Lewis and Clark expedition or plants that were collected from his own mountainside, his own woodlands, or plants that were sent to him by his friends from Europe. And I think that Monticello had a marvelous plant collection. And when Jefferson was mentioning his most important contributions to mankind, including the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia, in the very same spirit, I think he would have included the introduction of the olive tree and of upland rice into the state of South Carolina.

  Tell us about Jefferson's landscape artistry and his views of formal gardens.
Jefferson's been called the first of a lot of things and he's also been called America's first landscape architect. Whether that's true or not, I'm not really sure. But he wrote to his granddaughter, Ellen Randolph, in 1805 and was discussing the actual number of fine arts. He said many reckoned but five: painting, music, sculpture, architecture and poetry. But others again, he said, add oratory. And others again add gardening as a seventh fine art. Not horticulture, he said, but the art of embellishing grounds by fancy. And Jefferson indeed had numerous sort of fanciful schemes for the landscape of Monticello. He sketched over 20 architectural structures that were to be sprinkled throughout the landscape. And when he was serving as minister to France in the 1780's, he went on a tour of English landscape gardens with John Adams. And Jefferson at the time was very much impressed with the new style English landscape in which garden designers like Cate Bildy Brown and Humphrey Repton would try and imitate the picturesque schemes of late 18th century English landscape painters in which the formal garden of the past was really done away with and replaced with a very romantic informal landscape that really tried to duplicate nature. And after returning from his visit to England, Jefferson said that the gardening in that country is the article in which it surpasses all the earth, I mean their pleasure gardening. And many of the ideas he observed in England were duplicated here at Monticello-the planting of trees in clumps, the use of informal lines in the landscape, the idea of the ornamental farm in which, according to Jefferson, the necessary elements of a working farm, what he called "the attributes of husbandry," were interspersed with what he called "the articles of a garden." That continual effort by Jefferson to exploit functional parts of the landscape with ornamental ideas was a real theme and it was one that he really picked up on his visit to English landscape gardens.

  What did Jefferson consider his favorite flower?
It's difficult to say what Jefferson's favoite flower was. I think the flower documented the most commonly as being planted at Monticello was in fact the tulip. And tulips were popular in part because, like a lot of bulb plants, they go dormant and so they could be shipped easily, not only from Europe across the ocean but from American nurseries to Jefferson here at Monticello. Jefferson was perenially having problems with transporting plants from American nurseries and from friends that were far away with bog-ridden roads and pirates on the high seas. So the tulip and other bulb-like plants were convenient because they go dormant so effectively and they could be shipped such great distances so easily.

  Jefferson wrote to Maria Cosway "with what majesty we ride above the storms"-what did he mean by that and what does it tell us about his views of living on a mountaintop?
He finished that quote by talking about how sublime it was to look down upon the workhouse of nature. And I think that in the last analysis in some ways, the landscape for Jefferson became very much a workhouse. And the gardens very much a laboratory and he was ever so much the scientist as he observed and defined seemingly all the things that were going on around him. But I think that it was true in gardening and horticulture and Jefferson's interest in natural history that a lot of his experiments bore fruit, that his landscape assumed this shape and form and color, so that this whole drama of the natural world began to unfold under what was in fact his personal direction.

  What did he look like as he oversaw his plantation?
Well, I think that the intense amount of documentation about gardening at Monticello suggests that Jefferson was certainly on site, perhaps in some ways directing the work. He was so meticulous about recording the spacing of the bean seeds and how far apart the asparagus was planted, that he had to be on site probably directing the work in some form or another. There's a great recollection of one of Jefferson's granddaughters years after Jefferson's death about the entire family going out on the west lawn together and planting flower bulbs, mostly tulips and hyacinths. And Jefferson himself would often write the names of the plants on a stick by the plant's side and measure the distance of the planting of the tulips and hyacinths. It's a marvelous recollection. The granddaughter recalled how many of the bulbs had rather colorful names. There was Marcus Aurelius and The Queen of the Amazons and Psyche and The God of Love. And when spring returned, the flowers would start coming up and bursting into flower and she recalled how she really believed that Marcus Aurelius was coming up or that the Queen of Sheba was above ground. And she then remarked about how the family would go out together and comment upon the color schemes and the spacing and how the flowers looked that particular season. And it kind of reveals how in some ways the gardening process brought the Jefferson family a little bit closer together.

“...a great part of Jefferson's experimental approach was stimulated by his eating habits.”

  What did Jefferson like to eat?
Well, I think a great part of Jefferson's experimental approach was stimulated by his eating habits. He was primarily a vegetarian if you can be primarily a vegetarian. He said he ate meat only as a condiment to his meals. So the vegetables from the garden were not only an experiment in which he was testing out all these varieties but they also provided food for the table. And he also always sensitive about extending the garden season into the winter months so he could have his lettuce and spinach and endive in December and January. And the garden is situated so well for starting things in the season very eary on.

Jefferson also was always seeking a palatable oil for the preparation of his vegetables. And some of his greatest experiments included trying to grow olives at Monticello or the sesame plant which he would preserve the seeds of and grind up the seeds to get sesame oil. Jefferson would develop almost this obsessive quest for certain kinds of plants whether it was rice that would grow on upland soils or the olive tree which he called "the manna from heaven," or the sesame plant or the Gloucester hickory which was a hickory plant which was a hybrid between two native hickories. And he would develop this real focus on these particular plants and try and try and try to get them to grow here at Monticello. And I think in many ways this passion for new and useful plants was based on a real feeling that plants could be a vehicle for social change. He envisioned, for example, sugar maple orchards for central Virginia. And he wrote about how he felt that possibly the culture of the deep south which was based the slave culture of sugar cane could be replaced in central Virginia with sugar maple groves that would be cultivated by women and children. So it was a way in which the socio-economic structure of the society could be changed through the introduction of a useful and new plant.

  Was he respected as a botanist by other scientists?
I doubt that Jefferson would consider himself much more than an amateur botanist but he would go on botanical rambles as far away as upstate New York. He was keenly fascinated by the world of botany. And in1792, a plant was named after him: the Jeffersonia difil or twinleaf. And it was named for Jefferson at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society and a noted early American botanist named Benjamin Barton said that it was Jefferson's knowledge of natural history, particularly zoology and botany, that equaled by that of few persons in the United States. And the twinleaf is a rare and precious wildflower that grows in only the richest coves of the Appalachian forests and it blooms around the time of Jefferson's early April birthday.

  You've talked about his rational, scientific side in relationship to gardening. Was there a sensual side?
I think in general you might make the statement that flowers in some ways were treasured in the early19th century more for their fragrance and their perfume and their curiosity rather than the show or the display that they created. And Jefferson wrote to his favorite nurseryman, a man named Barnard McMahon who lived in Philadelphia, and said, "Please send me handsome plants or fragrant. Those of mere curiosity I do not seek." Indeed, if you look at the flowers that Jefferson did cultivate at Monticello, many of them were indeed either plants of curiosity or fragrant plants. A plant's perfume and its fragrance was very noticeable attribute that Jefferson commented upon time and time again.

  Has he left a legacy to American gardeners? Do they look back to him for specific species or techniques?
Well, Jefferson of course said that the greatest service which could be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture. And Jefferson was always aspiring to add new plants, from the upland rice to the sugar maple to the olive tree, to the culture of the deep south and to the south in general. But its difficult to actually measure his legacy. One modern horticulturist, a very wellknown one named U.P. Hedrick, has said that most southerners knew of the horticultural practice in places like Monticello and Mount Vernon. When they returned to their homes, they would try and duplicate those practices. I'm not sure that's quite true but I think that Jefferson's legacy as a gardener is not so much in what he in fact accomplished, but rather in the example of the stewardship of the land, the fact that he was an experimenter, the fact that he was forever planting, the fact that he believed in importing new plants and endorsing an expedition like the Lewis and Clark expedition to go and find out more about botany and about new plants that existed in the far west.

  Was Jefferson ever satisfied with his gardens?
I think that in many cases Jefferson's grandest visions for his farms and his gardens really dissolved before the harsh realities of plantation life on what was in fact virtually the Virginia frontier. There are alot of reasons for this: just as the house itself was continually being reconstructed and torn back down again and built back up again, so was the landscape always in change and always in flux. The gardens in 1778 for Jefferson were totally different from the ones of 1807 which in turn were really different from the ones around 1816. And I think that gardening on a mountain was also a difficult thing to do. Jefferson was always having problems with water, his wells and cisterns and springs were continually drying up. And he wrote enviously to his friends in Tidewater, Virginia comparing their deep dark loams with his scanty red clay topsoil. And I think it's also important that he was away from Monticello for many, for the many years he regarded it as his home. And the place was not exactly caretaken by competent overseers. And there's funny letters from his granddaughters talking about how when Edmund Bacon, the overseer, was told to manure the grass grounds around the house, he instead covered it with six inches of charcoal. And I think many of the gardening and the agricultural dramas at Monticello really had kind of tragic and unhappy endings. In many ways Jefferson's vision was not matched by the reach of what he was capable of being able to do here.

  What happened after he died?
I think soon after Jefferson's death, there were numerous letters in the Charlottesville newspaper and even advertisements taken out by his family urging local residents to refrain from stealing souvenier plants from the gardens and landscape at Monticello. Mr. Barkley, the first owner of Monticello, soon after Jefferson's death was reputedly plowing up the west lawn and planting it with corn. And throughout the hundred years between Jefferson's death and the purchase of the property by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the landscape was always in flux as stone walls were covered with eroding soil and, although much attention was paid to preserving the house, a lot of the features of the landscape quietly disappeared.

  Talk about the degenerative theory, his pride in the size of the animals and his ongoing discussions with Buffon?
Jefferson had this great pride in the natural products of the New World, particularly its plants. And this is at a time when there are numerous European detractors of the American natural world, particularly a Frenchman named Buffon who said in his Natural History that the New World's natural life, from its plants to its animals to its native people was somehow inferior to that of Europe's. And of course the only book that Jefferson published in his lifetime, Notes on the State of Virginia, was really an effort to refute this theory, a theory interestingly enough whose foundation was based on thesis that the excessive humidity in the eastern United States resulted in the natural degeneracy of all sorts of life. But even in his ornamental plantings around the house, Jefferson has this really pleasing blend of not only exotic plants brought from around the world, but also native plants that he collected from his own mountainside. And in many ways the flower gardens at Monticello are as much a study collection of local woodland curiosities as they were a showy display of flowers from around the world. And when Jefferson was living in Paris, he cultivated Indian corn in his French garden to show off to his friends. He was constantly importing American seeds of trees and shrubs again to display that there was certain beauty and size and grandeur to these natural products of North America.

“I think Jefferson's definition of happiness might have revolved a great deal around books and nature.”

  What would you say was Jefferson's definition of happiness?
I think Jefferson's definition of happiness might have revolved a great deal around books and nature. Those are two, I think, central themes that define a lot of his experience. I think they go together a great deal in the sense that some scholars have even looked at Jefferson's perception of nature as the foundation for some of his ideas on political philosophy. But I think two of the greatest legacies of Jefferson include his literary skills that have made Jefferson sort of all things to all people. I mean he's a conservative to conservatives and a liberal to liberals. Discovering Jefferson is like digging a deep hole and never finding the bottom. He's an ambiguous figure in the mind of the American people and I think that is where the beauty of his legacy lies. And I think the foundation for that legacy is his literary skills. And I think that's a feature of Jefferson that is sometimes a little unappreciated. He was a marvelous writer. And when he wrote about nature, when he wrote about gardening, he was really emotive and it's a real feeling, personable, human Thomas Jefferson. I've had one scholar who came to me and said he didn't like Jefferson because he seemed like too much of a cerebral character. But I think that if you look at Jefferson in the gardening process, you'll see very much the personal and the human Jefferson coming out very very strongly: a man in the gardens with his daughters and granddaughters, engaging in contests with his neighbors to see who could bring the first pea to table in the springtime, a man who sometimes linked gardening and sociability in a very lively and affecting way.

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