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Brief Lives -- August 1996

Eminent Domains

A horticulturist and the landscape at Monticello
that he has brought back to life


by Cullen Murphy


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

hatch picture
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

Read part of Cullen Murphy's interview with Peter Hatch

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
garden picture
The 1,000-foot vegetable garden
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."

Along the roundabout a little farther on, the forest lightened considerably: we had come to the lower Grove, where the thick underbrush has been removed and the trees have been thinned and pruned to a height of twenty or thirty feet, so
grove picture.
The lower Grove, modeled after ones Jefferson saw on a trip to England
as to stand like columns under a high canopy on an undulating grassy hillside. Jefferson had admired the achievement of similar effects during a tour of English country houses in 1786. In England stands of trees typically had to be added to a landscape of rolling fields to produce the desired environment. In Virginia the strategy was just the opposite. As Jefferson explained, "We have only to cut out the superabundant plants." At one point Jefferson talked about obtaining a buck elk for the Grove to serve as "monarch of the wood." (Apparently he never did.) Hatch led the way through the Grove from the second to the first roundabout, turning at the summit's rim to take in the gently shaded slope we had just climbed, and to recall a line from Jefferson: "Under the constant, beaming, almost vertical sun of Virginia, shade is our Elysium."

Continuing on, still counterclockwise, we edged by the upper Grove and its reassembled riot of pet trees--chinaberries and magnolias, dogwoods and catalpas--and then moved on to the long vegetable garden on the terrace. Thick rows of Jefferson's ribbed tomatoes--represented by the species Costoluto genovese--were well on the way to ripeness. Extreme heat had been preceded by weeks of rain, and rot was afflicting some of the other fruits and vegetables. Looking at the damage, Hatch mentioned that Jefferson had been maddeningly optimistic in the face of agricultural calamity. "He once lost his whole wheat crop," Hatch said, "but that was okay, because it gave him a chance to study the life cycle of the pest that destroyed it--the Hessian fruit fly. He had a phrase about the failure of one thing being repaired by the success of another." From the bottom of the terrace's retaining wall the vineyards and orchards stretch downward into the distance. Jefferson was a skilled surveyor, and left plans for his fields, but frequently that is not enough. One might know the location of an orchard, but where were the individual trees? Archaeology has sometimes been of help: for example, excavations revealed the precise locations of scores of the original orchard trees, in the form of circular stains left in the red-clay soil by the decomposed trunks.

Hatch found us a cool place in the shade near the Garden Pavilion and described the tribulations involved in trying to stock the landscape with the exact
fruit picture
The Breast-of-Venus peach

species of plants that Jefferson knew. Sometimes Jefferson offhandedly referred to a plant variety not by its real name but by the name of the person it came from: "Leitch's pea." Well, what pea was Mr. Leitch growing? Even if Jefferson used a real botanical name, the name may have changed over the years. We happen to know that what he called the "black plumb peach of Georgia" was later called the Cherokee peach and is today called the Indian Red or blood cling peach--so Hatch knows what to plant. But the identities of Jefferson's "blue-speckled snap" bean and "long haricot" bean remain a matter of guesswork. Another problem: some once-valued species have over the years gone out of cultivation and acquired the status of weeds. Hatch has spent hours driving through the countryside, trolling for missing specimens sprouting along the road. Rare seeds or cuttings, finally located, sometimes prove to be a disappointment. Hatch spent years trying to obtain scionwood from Europe for the Breast-of-Venus peach--one of Jefferson's favorites (he called it the "teat peach") among the thirty-eight varieties of peach he grew--and thought he had succeeded, only to discover when the trees finally bore fruit that the peaches weren't Breast-of-Venus after all.

BACK in his office I looked around for a few minutes while Hatch returned some telephone calls. A kitchen table displayed a colorful assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables; the garden's produce is distributed among staff and volunteers. In a photograph nearby I picked out Hatch's face from a group of players in nineteenth-century baseball uniforms. He is on a team that plays by the old rules and with the old equipment (or, as in the case of baseball gloves, without equipment). A corner table held slides of grapes and grapevines for a monograph being readied for publication.

When he was free, I asked Hatch to define what he was and wasn't trying to accomplish at Monticello. One thing Monticello isn't, he said, is a living historical farm, like the ones to be found at, say, Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation, in Massachusetts. His staff doesn't dress in period clothing or employ period tools or eschew fertilizer and pesticides. As Hatch observed, "Other people are doing that sort of thing very well." Monticello, rather, is an attempt at landscape restoration--"to provide a vignette of what
flower picture
Flower beds along the West Lawn's serpentine walk
existed, the pulse of a historic landscape." Are there limits to what can be shown? he went on to ask. Of course there are. Gardens and trees grow up, are always changing. We don't know how carefully the landscape was maintained--for example, how thickly weeds were allowed to grow. Moreover, Hatch has often made good on Jefferson's schemes where Jefferson himself did not--for example, in the growing of European grapes for wine in an uncongenial climate. (Hatch succeeded by grafting European vines onto the established roots of hardy American vines.) He pulled down an edition of the Garden Book, Jefferson's richly detailed record of his plans and plantings and harvests, and opened it to a typical page. There Jefferson listed one experimental endeavor after another, following up after each with a report from a later date: "Failed." "Failed." "Failed." "Failed."

Several big projects lie ahead at Monticello, including the gradual reintroduction of the "clumps" of trees at the corners of the mansion and the creation of a scenic parkway down to the main county road. Hatch also has administrative chores and lectures to attend to. And he is completing a book. But the biggest challenge he faces, Hatch says, is simply meeting the plantation's daily demands. "I strive toward managing the landscape and restoring the gardens and reviving old plants more diligently than any other facet of my job. These are things that I will never completely finish to my highest expectations."

Thomas Jefferson might have delivered the same self-assessment. But he would have come closer to what he intended with the help of Peter Hatch.


Photo credits, top to bottom:
Elizabeth Larson Dunham
Skip Johns/Monticello
Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation
Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and the National Agricultural Library
Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1996; Eminent Domains; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 28-31.

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