The Monticello West Garden, 2015

I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one through the year.

Jefferson to Charles Wilsson Peale
August 20, 1811

This is one of the most hectic periods I can ever remember in my life. As I tried to live in the Head this last week, I considered not planting a garden this year. But my Heart spoke clearly that to forgo a garden just because I am busy was not only a betrayal of my desire to be a true Jeffersonian, but also a betrayal of my maternal grandmother Rhoda Straus, who canned 500 quarts a year for much of her adult life. She lived in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

So, I determined to find a way.

I have two gardens. One is a regular old vegetable garden of about 60 by 50 feet, with an anarchic raspberry patch in the middle. The other is my Monticello West garden, a raised bed of 24 by 12 feet. I call the Jefferson garden my Square IX garden, after one of the rectilinear garden plots Jefferson established on magnificent garden terrace on the south face of his little mountain near Charlottesville. 

I work with Monticello's head gardener Pat Brodowski. She sends me Jefferson seeds, which I dutifully (and joyfully) plant in North Dakota, about a mile from the Missouri River. I send her Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara seeds, which she plants at Monticello. We keep obsessive Jeffersonian records, and in the fall we compare notes and compare harvests. It is precisely the sort of thing that Jefferson would love--comparative horticulture and an Enlightened data base.

Pat planted the Monticello West seeds weeks ago. I just planted the Monticello East seeds this weekend, most of them yesterday (June 2) and today.

To be more authentic, and enlightened, I arranged with a good friend of mine to get two huge loads of manure from the ranch she and her husband have about 80 miles northeast of Bismarck. The manure is prime four year old cattle and horse manure, rich in nutrients, with only the slightest odor where the straw has somehow kept the manure moist after all of that time.

Her husband Troy, who could not be a nicer or more generous man if he tried, loaded up the trailer I rented, but he declined to pursue the project any further. In fact, when I turned up at the ranch in my Jeffersonian garden duds in deep manure enthusiasm last week, Troy gave me a look that translates something like: "I cannot believe anyone would be moronic enough to come 80 miles to put himself knee deep in shit." or "only a humanities scholar would think this plan is better than Miracle Gro." But he used his big front end loader (stereo, heated seats) to deliver me shit, as it were.

It took two full days with my tiller to work that manure into both of my gardens. My friend Jim, a much abler gardener than I am, said the "black dirt" as he calls it might be too "hot." He later revised his opinion to suggest that I might have eight-five foot beans, "Jack."

I'm on my way to Calgary to consult for the HBO Playtone Miniseries on Lewis & Clark (release date, 2017). This morning (Wednesday, 3 June) I had to write my weekly newspaper column (Bismarcktribune.com), and then I suddenly had two hours of relatively free time. I put on my garden clothes and planted about 85 percent of my garden. 

Jefferson corn, okra, lettuce, beets, tomatoes, peas, etc.

Mandan corn, Hidatsa beans, Arikara beans and watermelon.

Stay tuned. I plan to post a number of these eBlasts this summer on the progress of the garden.

It is all great fun, of course, but there is a larger purpose. I believe strongly in the farm to table movement, the CSA movement, what I call the New Jeffersonian Agrarian Movement. As you no doubt know, Jefferson envisioned a republic of sturdy and independent family farmers who worked moderately hard in their fields by day, but at night read Homer and Plutarch in the original Greek. Agribusiness, I believe, will in the long run be seen as a very important transitional phase of agrarian history..

My plan is, as they say, to "eat what I can and can what I cannot." My pressure cooker is reader for the harvest. Now I need timely rains, the discipline to spend the hour per day that weeding and watering will require, and a little help from my friends.

Pat B. may be able to give us some updates on the Thomas Jefferson Hour from the fully-staffed, fully-professional Monticello gardens. Meanwhile, I have to stave off pheasants, rabbits, and raccoons out in the Upper Louisiana Territory.


Read Jefferson’s marvelous letter to Charles Wilsson Peale.

Further Reading:

A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden at Monticello
by Peter Hatch

Becoming Jefferson's People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century
by Clay S. Jenkinson

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation
by Andrea Wulf