THOMAS Jefferson, then the American ambassador to France, was in Paris in 1789 when the Bastille was stormed and the French Revolution began. He wrote to James Madison a few days later, saying that he would probably not be coming home anytime soon: "This scene," Jefferson observed, "is too interesting to be left at present."
On a recent Bastille Day, I found myself entertaining similar sentiments during a visit with Peter Hatch at Monticello, Jefferson's home in the Virginia Piedmont. Hatch, Monticello's director of gardens and grounds, is the man who more than any other is responsible for restoring the 2,000-acre plantation's gardens and groves to a state resonant with Jefferson's intentions, as spelled out in a copious body of drawings and agronomic observations. Jefferson was an
Peter Hatch, savoy cabbage, and the Garden Pavilion
avid farmer and horticulturalist (that is perhaps all he would have been, he claimed, were it not for what he obliquely called "the history of our times"), but the grounds at Monticello fell into ruin soon after his death, in 1826. A little more than a century later, in 1939, after the estate passed from private hands into those of a foundation, the Garden Club of Virginia undertook a reconstruction of the oval flower beds that had surrounded the mansion and also of the serpentine walkway that had defined the formal West Lawn. The club had sketches to work from. Ingeniously, club members found the path of the walkway by training automobile headlights on the terrain at night and marking the shadowy depressions. In places the walkway could be traced because perennials planted alongside it continued to grow. By all accounts the Garden Club did an exemplary job with the flower beds and walkway, but a great deal remained to be done.
Peter Hatch arrived in 1977. He immediately started re-creating Jefferson's ornamental forest, known as the Grove. Next, after an archaeological investigation that began in 1979, came the rebuilding and replanting of the
1,000-foot-long vegetable garden, on a terrace above a massive retaining wall. The following years saw the restoration of the South Orchard (1981); the reconstruction of the elegant brick Garden Pavilion (1984); the replanting of the Northeast Vineyard (1985); the creation of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, a repository for rare seeds and heirloom flowers and vegetables (1987); and the replanting of the Southwest Vineyard (1992).
I was introduced to the work of Peter Hatch by a mutual friend, who sent me a wonderfully learned and cheerfully quirky manuscript by Hatch titled "Chainyballs, Tennis-ball Lettuce, and the Breast of Venus Peach." Among other things, I discovered from the manuscript that Jefferson's favorite vegetable probably was peas, and that he cultivated seventeen kinds of them; that he grew beans and corn from seeds brought back by Lewis and Clark; that he was instrumental in popularizing the tomato in America, although the tomato he knew was ribbed and lobed like a pumpkin or a buttercup squash; and that, in the Grove, he assiduously maintained a collection of what one visitor mockingly called "pet trees"--exotic specimens gathered from around the country and the world. In addition, Hatch had this to say about Jefferson:
His passion often outstripped his skill, and the saga of many horticultural projects, from grape culture to sugar-maple plantations, began with dreamy visions that dissolved before the harsh realities of the Virginia climate and an unruly plantation structure.
Jefferson was also at all times deeply in debt, and though he employed a great many overseers in the course of a lifetime, he never had one who earned his confidence.
PETER Hatch is a youthful-looking man of forty-seven who dresses in a way appropriate to physical activity outdoors. When I met him, on a day in July when the temperature exceeded 100°, he wore gray shorts and a gray sport shirt and strong brown walking shoes. He has lived in the South for almost three decades, and its soft tones lightly coat his speech, leaving no hint of
his native Michigan. I got the impression after talking with him for just a few minutes that although he likes book learning and scholars well enough, he prefers having his hands a little dirty and spending his time with his workers. (He has a full-time staff of about twelve people.) He is naturally athletic, and I noted that on his résumé under "Awards" he lists not only such things as the 1984 "Merit Award, American Society of Landscape Architects" and the 1989 "Productivity Trophy, Vinifera Wine Growers Association" but also "All-Metro High School Ice Hockey, Detroit News, 1967." Hatch's failure, after his graduation from the University of North Carolina, to land a job as an ice-hockey coach and English teacher at a private school outside Boston led by chance to a joyous summer with friends on an organic farm on Cape Cod. His life deflected toward horticulture, he returned to North Carolina for training and before long was hired to be the first horticulturalist at the Old Salem restoration, in Winston-Salem. Monticello hired him three years later.
Hatch's greenhouses and his office lie just out of sight of Jefferson's mansion and about a hundred feet below it, on the eastern slope of Monticello mountain. Not far from his door a dirt track gives entry to the forest. Hatch pointed to it and said, "Let's take the second roundabout." The trees closed above us.
Jefferson encircled his 867-foot-high mountain at four elevations with level tracks the width of a carriage. The first roundabout is at the summit, and girds the house and lawns and gardens. The fourth roundabout is halfway down the mountain. The roundabouts are connected one to another by sloping tracks that Jefferson called "one-in-tens" and "one-in-twenties," referring to the steepness of the grade. We followed a counterclockwise course along the second roundabout, Hatch offering intermittent commentary. He stopped at an ironwood tree to admire its silvery fluted trunk, its striking combination of delicacy and strength. We came across a lone magnolia in a thick forest of chestnut and hickory, an upland setting unusual for magnolias. "It's probably a descendant of one Jefferson planted around the house," Hatch explained. Non-native species that propagate in new environments are said to have "escaped." Jefferson's collection of non-native plants was vast, and as a result flora on the lam can today be found all over his mountain. Seeing these plants, I thought of John Adams's last words: "Jefferson still survives."