America’s Earliest Gardeners

The Vegetable Garden: The 1,000-foot-long garden terrace served as both a source of food and an experimental laboratory at Monticello.

The Founding Fathers Paved The Way For A Green America

By Ilene Dube

Gardening, it has been said, is one thing we can discuss while setting aside partisan politics—even when it involves the gardening practices of our nation’s political leaders. As garden historian Marta McDowell puts it, “Whether gardeners lean right or left, blue or red, we are united by a love of green-growing things and the land in which they grow.”

McDowell, who gardens and writes in Chatham, New Jersey, traces the story of how the White House grounds were conceived and how they morphed with changing administrations in All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses—How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America (Timber Press, 2016). We get glimpses into such presidential pastimes as Lincoln’s goats, Ike’s putting green, Jackie’s iconic roses and Amy Carter’s tree house.

When Michelle Obama dug ground for her organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn in 2009, she was raising not only produce for the White House Kitchen and the Food Bank Organization, but also national pride in growing things. The roots of her garden go back to Colonial times. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all operated farms, and believed agriculture was the noblest occupation and the foundation of democracy.

During the Revolutionary War, Washington encouraged his troops to eat vegetables and even to plant them if time allowed. While our nation’s early leaders may have torqued a tendon bending over to seed the fertile earth, their dedication to the soil shaped the way they forged the nation.

The Greenhouse at George Washington’s gardens at Mount Vernon.

In Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation (Knopf, 2011), author Andrea Wulf looks at the founding fathers as gardeners, plantsmen and farmers. “Not only did they create the United States in a political sense,” she writes, “they had also understood the importance of nature for their country.”

Gardening, agriculture and botany were passions as deeply ingrained as their belief in liberty for the nation. Wulf reveals how, even as British ships gathered off Staten Island during the Revolution, Washington bombarded the manager of his beloved Mount Vernon with detailed instructions, insisting on prompt replies. If Washington were president today, such gardening correspondence might activate a Twitter storm.

During years of diplomatic service overseas, Adams and Jefferson toured private gardens and studied the latest agricultural techniques. Adams was the first president to live in the White House, then surrounded by mud flats, and Jefferson, focused more on his Monticello gardens than the White House, wanted only native shrubs and trees.

Reasons for gardening during Colonial times were similar to the reasons people garden today: To have a source of fresh produce, to be outdoors, breathing in the fresh air and sunshine, and to experience the simple pleasure of digging one’s hands into the dirt. Martha Washington once wrote that growing vegetables was among “the best parts of living in the country.”

It should be pointed out that none of these gardens would have been possible without the hard work of slaves. In 1799, Mount Vernon was home to a community of 317 enslaved men, women and children. George and Martha Washington relied on enslaved labor to keep their plantation profitable. And at Monticello, about 130 enslaved men, women, and children lived and worked on the plantation, producing cash crops of tobacco and wheat.

Monticello is the autobiographical masterpiece of Thomas Jefferson – designed and redesigned and built and rebuilt for more than forty years.

LIVING OFF THE LAND

Benjamin Franklin believed agricultural self-sufficiency was vital for the increasingly rebellious colonies. While in London he sent seeds home, not just for the enhancement of his own garden but to be distributed to other Philadelphia plantsmen.

James Madison, Wulf suggests, is the forgotten father of American environmentalism. He sounded the clarion call against the perils of depleting soil by clearing forests and over farming land, urging fellow Virginia farmers to protect the old-growth forests. As president of the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, he made a speech offering advice on how to live off the land without destroying it.

“This was an approach that celebrated the American landscape as it was rather than creating something entirely new and European,” writes Wulf.

Gardens during Colonial times (1600 to 1775) were diverse, varying by geographic area, climate, and economic status and heritage of the owner. Seeds from around the world were mixed in with such native plants as tobacco and corn. Colonists did not develop or use garden plans as landscape designers do today. Most Colonial gardens were small and close to the house, with a walkway (brick, gravel or stone) from the house’s entrance to the center of the garden. Planting beds could be square, circular or rectangular, and paths forked out from the main walkway. Fruits, herbs, flowers and vegetables were mixed together in beds that were frequently raised and enclosed with either fences or boxwood hedges. Visitors to the gardens at Mount Vernon today can see the ha-ha walls Washington created to separate the working farm from the pleasure grounds.

Washington oversaw all aspects of the landscape at Mount Vernon. He extensively redesigned the grounds surrounding his home, adopting the less formal, more naturalistic style of 18th-century English garden landscape designer Batty Langley. Washington reshaped walks, roads and lawns; cut vistas through the forest, and planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs. The well-ordered gardens provided food for the mansion’s table and were also pleasing to the eye. Eighteenth-century visitors to Mount Vernon were treated to bountiful offerings of fresh vegetables and fruits, and reveled in after-dinner walks among opulent flowering plants.

Says Mount Vernon’s Director of Horticulture Dean Norton: “The kitchen garden was the most important garden on any grounds in the 18th century. Ever since this garden was created in 1760 it hasn’t changed, and has generated a lot of fruits, vegetables and berries. The person who had more to do with this garden than George Washington was Martha Washington. One of her main responsibilities was the evening meal. Not only was it supposed to be abundant but elegant, and if not it was a direct reflection on her. She was a keen plants woman.”

Washington was serious about manure, the salvation for soils robbed of their fertility. His interest can be observed in a letter he penned to a friend requesting that he find Washington a farm manager “above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold.”

Were Thomas Jefferson to walk the grounds of Monticello today, he would feel fully at home in the 1,000-foot terraced vegetable garden where the very vegetables and herbs he favored are thriving. The garden is a living expression of Jefferson’s distinctly American attitudes. Its impact on the culinary, garden and landscape history of the United States continues to the present day. Peter J. Hatch, who directed the restoration of the garden, has written A Rich Spot of Earth (Yale University Press, 2012), devoted to all aspects of the Monticello vegetable garden, from the asparagus and artichokes first planted in 1770 through the horticultural experiments of Jefferson’s retirement years (1809–1826). The author explores topics ranging from labor in the garden, garden pests of the time and seed saving practices to contemporary African American gardens. Hatch also discusses Jefferson’s favorite vegetables and the hundreds of varieties he grew, the half-Virginian half-French cuisine he developed, and the gardening traditions he adapted from many other countries.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Morven Museum & Garden, the one-time home of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton, is listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Landmark. The grounds can be seen as a patchwork of history. The horse chestnut walk that connects the museum to the Princeton municipal complex is a restoration of one that existed in the late 18th century. The formal front lawn, rimmed by a row of Southern catalpa trees, came to be when the road now known as Stockton Street was straightened over 200 years ago. Disease-resistant American elms, replacements for those lost to Dutch Elm disease at the turn of the 20th century, once again flank the restored horseshoe-shaped drive.

From the vantage point of the back courtyard, a visitor can admire a 19th-century brick wall that divided the pleasure garden from the more utilitarian areas, a Colonial Revival garden that replicates one that Helen Hamilton Shields Stockton grew in 1927, and a recreation area that recalls the 1940s tenancy of Robert Wood Johnson.

For the past five summers, visitors could get a taste of culinary history in Morven’s Kitchen Garden, whose hearty beds featured heirloom and modern varieties of tasty roots and fruits. The robust garden produced hundreds of pounds of food every year that Morven donated to food banks. But just as visitors grew accustomed to the bounty, so did insect pests—cabbage worms and squash bugs—and deer, and so the vegetables will be taking a year off this summer. The good news is, Colonial-era herbs and flowers will be planted in their stead, according to Morven Horticulturist Pam Ruch, who came on board in 2000 and has been through several phases of restoration of the historic property.

“We don’t really know what Richard and Annis Stockton grew,” says Ruch. “Although Annis may have written about certain plants in her poetry, it’s not necessarily what was grown here. We will be planting what you would have seen during the Colonial period, such as old varieties of zinnias and Maltese cross sunflowers.”

The vegetables had been grown in 16 four-by- 12-foot beds, and these beds, punctuated by an iron sculpture of interlocking circles, will bloom with flowers that attract pollinators. “The food banks like flowers, too,” says garden assistant Nancy Nicosia, who raises the plants from seeds under grow lights. Among her seed sources is Monticello. At press time she was ordering celosia, Love-Lies-Bleeding amaranth, verbena and coneflowers. “Pollinators love it,” she says. Milkweed, the food source for the Monarch butterfly, already grows wild on the beds.

The garden is planned so something will always be blooming, and weeds will be suppressed with mulch—but there’s still plenty of weeding to do, and Morven has a team of 30 volunteers who come to help on Thursdays.

As with all gardens, Morven’s is a place where survival of the fittest can be observed. In August, the blue winged digger wasp pays a visit. The wasp is a parasitoid—unlike a parasite that lets its host live, a parasitoid kills its host. Sounds nasty, except that the digger wasp’s victim is that notorious garden pest the Japanese beetle. The fierce wasps locate the white beetle grubs beneath the surface of the earth, tunnel through the dirt, deliver a paralyzing sting, and deposit an egg on the skin of the grub. The hapless white grub is incapable of removing the egg which soon hatches and the parasitic larva of the digger wasp slowly consumes its victim. After completing its development during summer and autumn, the wasp larva spins a cocoon of silk, pupates, and passes the winter in the burrow created by the white grub. Fresh, new wasps emerge as adults the following August.

But before you cancel your plans to visit: the digger wasp does not sting. “Yellow jackets give wasps a bad name,” says Ruch. “Most wasps will sting to defend their territory but are not aggressive and will not chase after you.”

Morven Museum Kitchen Garden and Garden Wall.