Thomas Jefferson, plant collector extraordinaire

The view from the Monticello Garden © Britt Conley
The view from the Monticello Garden © Britt Conley

Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power” -Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) Like his predecessor George Washington, Jefferson had longed to care for his farm and garden. “My views and attentions are all turned homeward“, he wrote a fellow gardener. Finally on March 15th 1809, after serving 12 years as president and vice-president, Thomas Jefferson returned to his beloved Monticello.

Jefferson's written plans for the gardens at Monticello Drawings of the gardens, orchards and grove at Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to J. H. Freeman. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
Jefferson’s written plans for the gardens at Monticello
Drawings of the gardens, orchards and grove at Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to J. H. Freeman. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

I am constantly in my garden as exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors when at Washington“. He was continually taking notes while supervising the activities on the plantation. These notes were eventually transferred to his Garden Book, a journal he kept from 1766-1824. His estate manager later recalled that Jefferson knew every plant in his garden and would instantly notice if a single tree had died or a specimen was missing. And specimens Jefferson had.

Vegetable Garden Pavillion (reconstructed in 1984) Image Credit: The Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Vegetable Garden Pavillion (reconstructed in 1984)
Image Credit: The Thomas Jefferson Foundation

There is not a sprig of grass the shoots uninteresting to me”. Plants representing the traditions of Europe, Colonial America, Native America, and Enslaved America filled the grounds.  The vegetable gardens, flower beds, shrubberies, orchards and groves contained plants collected either by Jefferson himself or by others at his request.  5 species of oak, 7 types of fir, 13 different roses, 7 varieties of cherries, 8 species of locust, 5 kinds of both magnolia and pines, and 150 varieties of fruit bearing plants are just a small fraction of the total.

Aerial of Monticello Mountain from the South (showing the West Lawn, Main House, Mulberry Row, Vegetable Garden Terrace, and South Orchard). Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Aerial of Monticello Mountain from the South (showing the West Lawn, Main House, Mulberry Row, Vegetable Garden Terrace, and South Orchard).
Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Lunaria still in bloom. An indifferent flower.                                                                                                 Mirabilis just opened. Very clever.                                                                                                                     Larger Poppy has vanished-Dwarf poppy still in bloom but on the decline.                                            Carnations in full life.                                                                                                                                            Argemone, one flower out”  – Notes from the Garden Book                                     Jefferson didn’t follow the usual pattern of collecting plants just for the sake of having them. He used Monticello as a laboratory, an early American experiment farm. He experimented with different growing methods and ran what are called field trials today, always observing, experimenting, and recording. He was searching for the best possible varieties, the most useful plants for American soils and climate.

The Northeast Vineyard Image credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Skip Johns.
The Northeast Vineyard
Image credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Skip Johns.

He categorized his vegetables into “Fruits”, “Leaves” and “Roots”, recorded sowing, transplanting and harvest dates, recorded weather patterns and temperature. He even measured the circumference of berries. It was a practical and patriotic undertaking. “One 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” 

The vegetable garden at sunset. Image by Peter J. Hatch
The vegetable garden at sunset.
Image by Peter J. Hatch

Planting is one of my great amusements, and even of those things which can only be for posterity, for a Septuagenary has no right to count on anything beyond annuals”  As Jefferson grew older, care of gardens and grounds was gradually taken over by other household members. When possible he would ride for hours around his beloved Monticello, often accompanied by a family member who would faithfully note his comments to be added to the Garden Book. His interest in gardening and plants continued until his death.

Frost on the garden Image by Carpe Feline
Frost on the garden
Image by Carpe Feline

I have often thought that if heaven had given me a 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…I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”  Jefferson to Charles W. Peale, 1811

Portrait by Rembrandt Peale

Want to learn more?                                                                                                                                    Two excellent sources for information on Jefferson’s farming and gardening activities are the digital facsimiles of the manuscripts compiled by Jefferson throughout his lifetime, his Farm Book and his Garden Book. These documents, owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society, have been transcribed and the entire contents are keyword searchable along with excellent quality digital facsimiles of the manuscript pages.

Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Leonard Phillips
Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Leonard Phillips

Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico EMG

George Washington, passionate farmer


Aerial view of Mt. Vernon from the Potomac River.

I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world”. — George Washington

There is no evidence that George Washington did any physical gardening himself at Mount Vernon, but his influence on activities was apparent. His designs determined what plants were included and how the gardens appeared. Washington was directly involved in the development and redesigning of the gardens around the mansion.

Mt. Vernon kitchen garden

Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: for your pocketbook not only suffers by it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved”                                             -George Washington

A glimpse of the mansion from the kitchen garden.

Washington cared about the style and type of plants in his gardens and closely supervised all plantings at Mount Vernon.

Mansion in the background.

It will not be doubted, that with reference either to individual, or National Welfare, Agriculture is of primary importance. In proportion as Nations advance in population, and other circumstances of maturity, this truth becomes more apparent; and renders the cultivation of the Soil more and more, an object of public patronage.”

George Washington, Eighth Annual Message to Congress, 1796

Greenhouse roof in the background.

Every improvement in husbandry should be gratefully received and peculiarly fostered in this Country, not only as promoting the interests and lessening the labour of the farmer, but as advancing our respectability in a national point of view; for in the present State of America, our welfare and prosperity depend upon the cultivation of our lands and turning the produce of them to the best advantage.

George Washington  (Letter to Samuel Chamberlain, April 3, 178?)

View from the greenhouse roof.

Nothing in my opinion would contribute more to the welfare of these States, than the proper management of our lands; and nothing, in this State particularly, seems to be less understood. The present mode of cropping practiced among us, is destructive to landed property; and must, if persisted in much longer ultimately ruin the holders of it. “
George Washington
(Letter to William Drayton, March 25, 1786)

He was a very progressive farmer and experimented with new ideas and plants. He was a firm believer in maintaining soil health and applied compost to his fields and gardens. This process was called “manuring”.

Mt. Vernon compost shed
The compost shed at Mt. Vernon

“When I speak of a knowing farmer, I mean one who understands the best course of crops; how to plough, to sow, to mow, to hedge, to Ditch and above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold; in a word one who can bring worn out and gullied lands into good tilth in the shortest time.
George Washington (Letter to George William Fairfax, June 30, 1785)


The back of the Mt. Vernon greenhouse showing one of the boxwood knot gardens. Potted plants were brought into the greenhouse to overwinter, the tall windows letting in enough light for them to survive.
The greenhouse also had a fireplace to supply additional heat. The heated air was ducted through flues and channeled under the floor. This was considered quite the innovation over the older method of ducting the hot air through walls and under windows.

The Mt. Vernon greenhouse

I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of a husbandman’s cares.

George Washington, letter, Jul. 20, 1794

Happy Independence Day everyone!


Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico MG

John Bartram, America’s Founding Plant Nerd


“How many gentle flowers grow in an English country garden?
I’ll tell you now of some that I know and those I’ll miss I hope you’ll pardon…”

These are opening words to the delightful tune “English Country Garden” which praises the variety of flora and fauna in an English garden. But did you know that the classic English garden has its roots in America? Without American plants the English garden as we know it today would never have existed.

It’s true!

Let’s set the clock back to 1733 where we see Mr. John Bartram of Pennsylvania sending two boxes of seeds to his London friend, Mr. Peter Collinson. (Mr. Collinson supports his personal gardening and plant collecting addiction by selling cloth.) Over the next 40 years Mr. Bartram will send hundreds of these seed boxes to Mr. Collinson. These are the seeds which will transform English gardens.

Howard Pyle's illustration of John Bartram shows the famed botanist in a marsh holding a plant which he's studying with the aid of a magnifying glass. Ca. 1879 Taken from the February 1880 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. No contemporary painting of John Bartram exists.
Howard Pyle’s 1879 illustration of John Bartram. 
No contemporary painting of John Bartram exists.

John Bartram (1699-1777) lived on a farm outside of Philadelphia and every fall he would go plant collecting. His wanderings eventually took him from Lake Ontario to Florida in search of new plant species for himself and Mr Collinson. Each winter dozens of seed boxes made the trip across the Atlantic to London where Mr. Collinson and his English gardening friends eagerly awaited their arrival.


“…the Botanick fire set me in such A flame as is not to be quenched untill death or I explore most of the South western vegitative treasures in No. America.” John Bartram, 1761.

For the first time English gardeners had a huge choice of plants which would provide year-round beauty in their gardens. With Winter blooming shrubs, blazing Fall foliage and a successive parade of blooms in the Spring and Summer, many an English gardener’s dreams were beginning to come true.  By the end of the 1800’s England had become a nation of gardeners.

Mr. Bartram’s trees and flowers laid the foundations for the English garden and by the time of his death his American plants were available across Britain. The English gardening style was widely copied across Europe. “Le jardin anglais”, “il giardino inglese” and “der Englische garten” were all recreations of an English garden filled with American plants.


In the late 1700’s garden touring became popular, so much so that in 1786 Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went on a tour of English gardens. Mr. Jefferson soon realized that the beautiful gardens they were seeing were more American than English. He said to recreate the look in America, “we have only to cut out the superabundant plants”. With many of our early leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others setting the example, Americans soon turned into plant collectors.

Colonial Williamsburg garden

John Bartram’s garden is the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America. It’s near Philadelphia, PA and is located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. It covers 46 acres which include an historic botanical garden and an 8 acre arboretum which was established in 1728. Three generations of the Bartram family have continued the garden as the premier collection of North American plant species in the world. The current collection contains a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants. Most were listed in the Bartrams’ 1783 Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbacious Plants and subsequent editions.

BartramsGarden2 Image

If you’re in the area, plan to see the the American birthplace of the English garden!

For more info: Bartram’s Garden

Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico Master Gardener