When First Lady Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House during her husband’s first term, she was following in the green footsteps of other Executive-level gardeners. That’s not to say that every First Family has planted spinach, hot peppers, and basil where heads of state usually tread. But Mrs. Obama joined a long line of Presidents and spouses who’ve brought their love of farming or gardening to our nation’s highest office. (Image: © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello/photograph by Mary Porter)
Our first three presidents were enthusiastic gardeners. George Washington, whose plantation home at Mount Vernon eventually encompassed 8,000 acres, wrote in 1797, “…(a) man ought to be a good Kitchen Gardener, to have some knowledge of a Green house and hot house; and how to raise things in hot beds.”
John Adams, who took office in 1797, was a farmer’s son who became interested in ornamentals after traveling throughout the U.S. and Europe. He and Washington experimented for years to come up with a perfect recipe for compost. (Today’s organic gardeners are still looking for the perfect blend of ingredients.)
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was a passionate botanist who once said, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture…One such service of this kind rendered to a nation is worth more to them than all the victories of the most splendid pages of their history…”.
Monticello, the plantation where Jefferson made his home after leaving office in 1809, is located outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The President designed its gardens, which included flowers, 170 varieties of fruits, and 330 varieties of herbs and vegetables. The restored kitchen garden runs the length of three football fields.
The land became a living laboratory where Jefferson could experiment with seeds and plants from his own travels, and with those sent to him from friends abroad.
Today, the Garden Club of Virginia works with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to maintain the gardens, which have been restored with attention to detail and accuracy. The oval and circular flower beds near the house follow Jefferson’s original designs from nearly 200 years ago.
Visitors come to Monticello in every season to admire its beauty. There’s much to learn here, too, from Jefferson’s seed-saving habits, to his practice of planting in a pattern of parallels and diagonals, to his efforts to improve the soil with organic matter. When you visit, bring home some of his ideas to try.Tr
Get Inspired by the Gardens at Monticello:
- For a natural look, use curved paths, informal plantings, and asymmetrical beds in your garden or landscape. Incorporate natives and wild flowers. Jefferson was influenced by naturalistic English gardens.
- Don’t stress over planting a structured, ornamental kitchen garden that looks good. Make it useful, but casual, so it’s easier to maintain.
- Use pruned limbs and cuttings to support plants. Jefferson stuck woody branches into the ground to make brush fences for peas and beans to climb.
- Host an outdoor party inspired by the gardens at Monticello.
- Keep a garden journal. For almost 60 years, Jefferson recorded successes and failures in his “Garden Book.”
- Experiment. Jefferson wasn’t primarily interested in beauty; he used his land to learn about and grow new and unusual plants from all over the world. Try a few plants that don’t typically thrive in your region.
- Improve your soil by regularly adding organic matter. Jefferson knew that good soil helps plants resist pests and disease.
- Try making vegetables the mainstay of your diet. Jefferson preferred vegetables to meats. Peter Hatch, the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello and the author of A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello, calls him America’s “First Foodie.”
- Consider planting in a micro-climate. Jefferson planted on a high, south-facing terrace. Because cold air sank away from the terrace during the winter, he extended the growing season for some of his warmth-loving crops. In the summer, he planted cool-weather crops like greens in low-lying, shady areas.
Bean trellis image: Flickr/Traylorillo
Monticello images courtesy Monticello.org