A Rich Spot Of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden At Monticello, by Peter J. Hatch
This book has a somewhat complicated task that makes it enjoyable to read but also very intriguing to think about and ponder. The book is written by the long-time groundskeeper at Monticello who has various aspects of Jefferson’s gardening that he wishes to convey to the reader. For one, the groundskeeper has a lot of plants to share, and some discussions about how Jefferson was as a gardener during the revolutionary war period as well as during his retirement after the presidency. Yet at the same time the writer has some less than desirable things to say about Jefferson as a gardener, things that reflect poorly on his efforts to grow plenty of food as well as experiment with new plants and varieties. The writer, in the end, has a lot to be proud of as someone who seeks to grow vegetables and also aid in the instruction of history but also has much that he says that reflects at least a bit poorly on the man he is writing about, since Jefferson was a complicated person and one whose role in American history as well as gardening was far from straightforward.
After a foreword and preface and acknowledgements section, this book consists of two parts and numerous supplementary material that total up about 250 pages or so, including the endnotes and bibliography and index and illustration credits for this gorgeously photographed book. The first part of the book explores the garden itself. It begins with some historical notes about Jefferson’s garden from his own garden diary and other writings (1) and then discusses how the garden was built, much of it by the slave labor of the plantation under supervision of overseers (2). The author spends some time talking about the garden and how it was divided up as well as about the people who worked on it the most, including those slaves too old to help out with cash crops (3). The author discusses as well the culture of the garden (4) and the way it has been restored to the garden of today (5). The second part of the book talks about the plants of the garden, including fruits (6), beans and peas (7), and roots (8) and leaves (9). It is particularly notable that Jefferson was so interested in growing kale. There are two appendices that provide a list of vegetables mentioned in Jefferson’s various writings as well as sources for historic and heirloom vegetables in the contemporary Monticello garden.
There are a lot of pointed questions that this particular book raises concerning Jefferson and his gardening. For one, it was like many of his projects one done at considerable expense, and one plagued by basic logistical problems (such as his promiscuous cross-fertilization and the shortage of water). While Jefferson clearly wanted to do a lot of gardening and was an avid observer of other gardens and deeply interested in plants, he remained an amateur and was unable to grow crops as early as many of his neighbors, despite his efforts when competing over the start dates of harvesting various crops. As is the case with much of Jefferson’s life, the problem of slavery raises its baleful head when one considers the sort of labor that went into the garden itself, including the way that the garden served as a way for old slaves to maintain some degree of productivity in producing food crops when they were no longer able to work on the cash crops that Jefferson used to stay (vainly) out of debt. Even Jefferson’s building of various buildings in the garden was plagued with error, including the structural failures of building on fill. Sadly, the garden shows Jefferson’s enthusiasm as well as his basic lack of competence.