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An excerpt from "Chainyballs, Tennis-Ball Lettuce,
and the Breast of Venus Peach: Searching for the Plants
of Thomas Jefferson," by Peter Hatch

Thomas Jefferson's interest in horticulture extended far beyond the casual efforts of a Virginia gentleman tastefully decorating his table and estate. The geographic origins of the plants grown at Monticello attest to the reach of his gardening imagination -- from the Mandan corn and Arikara bean discovered by Lewis and Clark, to the thirty-five varieties of vinifera, or European grape, grown in the experimental vineyard; from the upland rice Jefferson smuggled home from France, to exotic flowering trees recently introduced from China, such as the mimosa, golden rain tree, and yes, the chinaberry. When Jefferson wrote that "the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture," he assumed the role of an aggressive plantsman, and Monticello became an experimental station of new and unusual introductions from around the world. Probably no early American gardener wrote about his garden as much as Jefferson. His Garden Book is a remarkable document, detailing a lifetime of sowing cabbages, harvesting peas, and manuring asparagus, sketching dreamy visions of romantic grottoes, and concisely recording the culture of 250 vegetable and 170 fruit varieties. Thomas Jefferson was crazy about gardening.

When Jefferson referred to his "garden," he, like most early American gardeners, was referring to his kitchen or vegetable garden. The [Thomas Jefferson Memorial] Foundation committed itself to the restoration of the eight-acre garden and orchard in 1979, and to complement the ample documentation of the site provided by Jefferson's records, an archaeological crew was employed to trace original fence lines, uncover the garden's monumental retaining wall, and look for other details that would enable the restoration to begin. A remarkable discovery was the exact location of fifty-eight of the original orchard trees, discernible by the dark stains in Monticello's red clay soil, the planting pattern nearly identical to one drawn by Jefferson in 1778. The use of archaeology in the landscape raises new challenges and dilemmas for the gardener. A restoration of the orchard demanded not only replanting in the precise, newly unveiled locations, but the retrieval of the specific variety of fruit Jefferson himself planted.

The identification of Jefferson's original planting holes, like the remarkable revelation of the Elizabethan garden at Bacon's Castle, in eastern Virginia, provides a clear-cut image of an earlier landscape. Archaeology, however, is a slow and expensive process. At least at Monticello, archaeological findings often raise more questions than answers as they relate to documentary evidence. The identification and even the dating of tree-hole stains is hardly a precise science. New techniques for the archaeological identification of plant species, such as pollen analysis and phytolithic investigation, are inexact when attempting to describe whether a plant is a weed or was cultivated. While these techniques can often specify the genus of a plant, its species more often remains a mystery. Also, the process of archaeology, involving the removal of vast quantities of soil, can obliterate living botanical evidence, such as seeds, bulbs, even the roots of extant historical material.

The essence of the gardening process involves the deep cultivation of the soil. Horticulturists are taught to dig a fifty-dollar hole for a five-dollar tree. Plow scars, the root growth of trees, and planting holes can obliterate the subtle archaeological evidence in the ground. At Monticello it is a battle for sacred land that often results in a stalemate. On four different occasions, in 1790, 1791, 1804, and 1807, Jefferson noted the planting of "clumps of trees in the four "corners" or "angles" of the house. The clumps, composed of fifteen to twenty shade and ornamental trees, were an arrangement Jefferson had admired in England during his landscape tour in 1787, while the corners or angles were specific areas immediately around the house. It seemed that Jefferson hoped not only to embower his house in trees, but also to create miniature gardens of nearly all the botanical elements -- trees, flowers, shrubs -- in an area most Virginians reserved for the swept yard. Although we know the species of trees that were planted, and can assume the boundaries of the "corners" with some certainty, the actual placement of each tree remains a mystery. Archaeologically stripping the entire area is not realistic or economically feasible. A re-creation based on a subjective interpretation would perhaps destroy the stains of the original plantings. The clumps were a clear reflection of Jefferson's landscape design sensibility, but until technological advances produce some super X-ray machine that will decipher completely the past disturbances of man and nature, the architectural face of Monticello will remain unembowered.

The years of archaeological excavations and the unceasing reliance on documentation are important at Monticello, for like many historic sites, much of the original landscape has disappeared. Following Jefferson's death, souvenir hunters robbed the estate of specimen shrubs, the Grove was reputedly leveled to create a silkworm plantation of mulberry trees, and the West Lawn was plowed in order to plant corn. The Levy family, regularly praised for their efforts in preserving the house from 1836 to 1923, might, understandably, have been unaware of the need to stabilize terraces, preserve old walkways, and protect naturalized flower bulbs. The contours of a mountain are easily disturbed and eroded. Even the Civilian Conservation Corps, working at Monticello during the Depression, has been accused of robbing the vegetable garden's retaining wall in order to construct a modern paved road. Often, when dealing with the landscape, the terms restoration and "tidying up" are synonymous. Wild shrubberies of escaped plants, awkward terraces, and crumbling weed-ridden stone walls are easy targets for aggressive maintenance personnel. The near-removal of the Monticello larch tree, the "old dead pine," is a useful example of this kind of misguided zeal.


Copyright © 1996 by Peter Hatch. All rights reserved.
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