Online: Object of the Month


A Record of Thomas Jefferson's Garden

Nancy Heywood
Digital Projects Coordinator

Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book, page 6

Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book contains detailed information about crops planted in the kitchen gardens at Monticello. Within this volume, Jefferson recorded notes about the varieties of vegetables and fruits he experimented with and planted, sowing locations, harvest dates, and weather conditions. The information provided in this manuscript volume, part of the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society, makes it possible to know, for example, the precise dates in 1771 when peas--according to tradition, Jefferson's favorite vegetable--were planted and served at Monticello. On page 6, entries for 1771 clearly document that peas were planted on 6 March ("the seed came from J. Bolling's"), sprouted on the 25th ("peas up"), and were served on 30 May ("peas of Mar. 6 come to table").

Numerous vegetables and fruits are tracked in the Garden Book. Peas are mentioned frequently, in fact, two-thirds of all the pages of the Garden Book (44 of 66 pages) include Jefferson's notes about various types: frame peas, Hotspur peas, cowpeas, marrowfat peas, black eyed peas, and Prussian blue peas. Jefferson's entries indicate the source of many of the seeds he planted--relatives, overseas contacts, various neighbors and acquaintances, as well as specific merchants. The entry about peas dated 6 March 1771 mentions that the seed came from John Bolling, Jefferson's sister Mary's husband. Page 17 lists 9 vegetables sowed on 2 May 1774 (including carrots, spinach, and curled parsley) that were "from Dr. Brown's" (probably Dr. William Brown of Alexandria, Virginia). Plums and apricots planted on 10 April 1809 (see page 31) were given to Jefferson by George Jefferson, who had received a shipment from Cadiz, Spain, sent by Mrs. Harriet Hackley. The brief note within the calendar on page 63 for 1822, "peas from Leitch," is a reference to James Leitch, a Charlottesville merchant.

The Local Pea Contest

It is very likely that some of the local individuals Jefferson mentioned as the source of vegetable seeds in his garden records were also his competitors in the annual pea contest. Peter Hatch, the Director of Monticello's Gardens and Grounds, writes about the neighborhood rivalry each year regarding who could harvest the first batch of peas: "according to family accounts, every spring Jefferson competed with local gentleman gardeners to bring the first pea to the table; the winner then hosting a community dinner that included a feast on the winning dish of peas."

More about the Garden Book

The Garden Book spans the years 1766 to 1824 and primarily tracks information about the gardens at Monticello. Because Jefferson was away from Monticello serving various diplomatic posts and federal positions, the Garden Book does not contain entries for the years 1784 to 1789; there is a gap between 1795 and 1801, and there are no entries for several other years. The earliest entries, for 1766 to 1768, relate to gardening activities at Shadwell, the home Jefferson inherited from his parents and where he lived until a fire in February 1770 (in November of that year, Monticello became Jefferson's primary residence). The Garden Book contains two types of entries: notations arranged by date are found throughout the entire volume and after 1809 there is also a "Kalendar" for every year through 1824. Each "Kalendar" presents data in a tablular format, with columns in which he listed the vegetables in his garden, where they were planted, when the seeds were sown, when the ripe vegetables "came to table" (were harvested), and other observations.

Second Annual Jefferson Lecture to be held on 26 May 2011

Andrea Wulf will present a lecture at the Massachusetts Historical Society entitled "The Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden." The talk, based on her book, The Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, offers a fascinating look at the revolutionary generation from the unique and intimate perspective of their lives as gardeners, plantsmen and farmers. For the founding fathers, gardening, agriculture and botany were elemental passions, as deeply ingrained in their characters as their belief in liberty for the nation they were creating. For more information about the lecture, co-sponsored by the Society and the Arnold Arboretum, please see the online calendar of events.

Sources for Further Reading

Baron, Robert C. editor. The Garden and Farm Books of Thomas Jefferson. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 1987.

Hatch, Peter. "Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Vegetables." Twinleaf Journal Online, 2000. Available on Monticello's website: http://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/thomas-jeffersons-favorite-vegetables.

Jefferson, Thomas. Garden Book, 1766-1824 [electronic edition]. Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003. http://www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/garden/.

To find all pages in the Garden Book that mention peas, search for "pea or peas" in the search box within the Jefferson digital collection.

Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book (also available online: http://www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/farm/ ) contains Jefferson's records about farming activities on many of his properties: Monticello, Poplar Forest, Lego, Shadwell, Tufton, Elk Hill, Willis's Creak and Bear Creek. Detailed records about livestock, crops, and slaves are contained in this volume. Some vegetables are mentioned, but most of the records relating to plantings concern grains--wheat, corn, rye, and oats. Peas are mentioned on 9 pages within the farm book, and were one type of seed planted during crop rotations.

Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book : with Commentary and Relevant Extracts from Other Writings, edited by Edwin Morris Betts. [Charlottesville]: University Press of Virginia, 1976, reprint of Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 35. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book, 1766-1824 : With Relevant Extracts from his Other Writings, annotated by Edwin Morris Betts. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society; vol. 22. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1944.