Jefferson, Thomas and Gardening


Thomas Jefferson‘s interest in gardening arose from a passionate curiosity about the natural world. From his childhood home at Shadwell, where in his early twenties Jefferson recorded that 2,500 pea seeds would fill a pint jar, until 1825, when at the age of eighty-two he sought and later received from the former governor of Ohio seeds of giant cucumbers, Jefferson had an unrelenting enthusiasm for natural history and horticulture that was expressed in his Garden Book. Sixty-six pages long, bound in leather, and residing today at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Garden Book is also a reflection of Jefferson’s Enlightenment ethic. Although he also displayed his love of gardening, food, and wine during his political life in Paris, Philadelphia, and Washington, and at his retirement retreat at Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s lifelong home at Monticello became his experimental horticultural laboratory as well as a natural canvas on which to indulge his interest in landscape design, whether sketching plans for garden temples, planting groves of native and introduced species of plants, or composing dreamy visions for classical grottoes around natural mountain springs.

Landscape of Monticello

Once writing that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it’s culture,” Thomas Jefferson strove to make his plantation at Monticello an experimental station of new and unusual plants that he hoped could advance the social and economic culture of the young United States. For example, Jefferson smuggled a dry-land variety of rice out of Italy in his coat pockets with the aspiration of moving Lowcountry Carolina rice growers and their enslaved African Americans away from malarial swamps to higher, healthier Piedmont lands. After a tour of northern New York and New England in 1791, Jefferson was inspired to plant sixty sugar maple trees at Monticello, writing that the culture of sugar cane in the deep South, and its reliance on slave labor, could be replaced in central Virginia with the growing of maple trees requiring only “the labour of children.” None of these experiments succeeded. An amateur gardener, Jefferson found that his ultimate role in the history of horticulture was as a facilitator, a champion of using plants as an agent for social change—whether encouraging early viticultural pioneers to develop an American wine industry, distributing sesame seeds to other progressive farmers for domestic oil production, or choreographing the propagation and distribution of the promising native American crops and indigenous western species brought back by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Philip Mazzei Commemorative Stamp

Jefferson’s earliest documented mention of the word “Monticello” was in a Garden Book notation in 1769, when he began planting fruit trees on the southeastern slope of the mountain. This was the same year construction began at the plantation. His earliest gardening activities included wine-grape plantings in 1774 by Italian vignerons employed by his Albemarle County neighbor and longtime friend Philip Mazzei, extensive plantings of apple and peach trees in 1778 and 1782 in Monticello’s South Orchard, and the beginnings of vegetable-garden cultivation and the sowing of asparagus, peas, and artichokes in prepared beds below Mulberry Row, the plantation street at Monticello.

The Italian Architect Andrea Palladio

In an 1805 letter to his granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Jefferson reviewed the number of “fine arts”: “many reckon but five—Painting, sculpture, architecture, music & poetry. to these some have added oratory … Others again, add Gardening as a 7th fine art. not horticulture, but the art of embellishing grounds by fancy.” Jefferson’s initial designs for the Monticello landscape borrowed heavily from European horticultural, architectural, and literary sources, but they were grounded in the classical writings of the Greeks and Romans. His plans varied dramatically, expressing at times a poetic fancy and at others a rigid adherence to geometric form. In 1771, partly influenced by James Gibbs’s Palladian-inspired Book of Architecture (1728), Jefferson composed romantic plans for the design of the burial grounds at Monticello. He also envisioned a grotto for his north spring, the walls spangled with moss and translucent shells, the floor paved with pebbles—the structure focused on a sculpture of “the nymph of the grot” with an inscription from Horace, translated by Alexander Pope—all fashioned after Pope’s grotto at Twickenham in London. The Palladian architecture, the name “Monticello” from Palladio’s description of the Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, the terraced garden and vineyards, stone walls, and predominance of Mediterranean plants all suggest that Jefferson envisioned the Monticello landscape as the setting for a classical Roman villa. The virtues of the ancient Greeks and Romans—the noble farmer, the belief that honest toil was its own reward, the moral virtue found in patriotism—were ones Jefferson aspired to create in the new American republic.

Observations on Modern Gardening

Jefferson had been a student of Euclidean mathematics since he was a young man and was the son of a professional surveyor. Thus, his earliest measured drawings for the Monticello landscape displayed a rigid geometry and formality. While serving as minister to France in 1786, however, he went on a tour of sixteen English landscape gardens with John Adams, using Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) as a guidebook. According to Whately, landscape elements—ground, water, wood, rocks, buildings—inspire emotions, and one’s skill as a landscape gardener is gauged by the disposition of these elements. Jefferson kept a diary of his visit to these naturalistic, informal gardens, and wrote just before returning to Paris: “The gardening in that country is the article in which it surpasses all the earth. I mean their pleasure gardening.” Jefferson later introduced a number of English landscape-garden features to Monticello. These included the Grove, an eighteen-acre ornamental forest on the northwest side of the mountain; the planting of trees around the house close together, in clumps; and the serpentine winding-walk flower border on the West Lawn. Jefferson’s overriding vision was for the larger landscape at Monticello, to be a ferme ornee, or ornamental farm, where, in his description, the “articles of husbandry” were “interspersed with the attributes of a garden.” Inspired by his visit to English estates like Leasowes and Woburn Farm, the ambition for a true ferme ornee was never established at Monticello.

Botany and Good Food

Benjamin Smith Barton

The study of botany, which Jefferson considered among “the most valuable of the sciences,” served as another foundation for his interests in gardening and landscape design. His excursion through New England and upstate New York with James Madison in 1791 was primarily a botanical ramble, and the following year a woodland wildflower, Jeffersonia diphylla, or twinleaf, was named in his honor by Benjamin Smith Barton, the most prominent botanist in America. At a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in 1792, Barton proclaimed that Jefferson’s “knowledge of natural history … especially in botany and in zoology … is equalled by that of few persons in the United States.” Jefferson appraised native plants for their usefulness. A key goal of the Jefferson-insitiated Lewis and Clark Expedition was to find new economic species. He proudly distributed seeds of American trees and shrubs to European naturalists, cultivated indigenous New World vegetables in his Parisian garden at the Hôtel de Salm, and planted native wildflowers and ornamentals at Monticello and Poplar Forest. According to his Washington friend Margaret Bayard Smith, Jefferson hoped to plant the President’s House “exclusively with trees, shrubs and flowers indigenous to our native soil.”

Jefferson’s interest in gardening was also furthered by his appreciation for good food, particularly fruits and vegetables. He wrote, “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, & that … as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.” Using data he compiled as president, early in his retirement he created a chart showing the first and last appearance of thirty-seven vegetables in the Washington farmers market. According to Smith, Jefferson regularly visited foreign embassies, which vied with each other to provide the most unusual type of vegetable. Jefferson, in turn, procured and passed the seeds to local farmers with instructions on the vegetables’ cultivation. He also directed his French household administrator, Etienne Lemaire, to pay the highest price for the produce brought to the market earliest in the season. Although the President’s House included a small nursery bed of endive for winter salads, Jefferson’s sketches for ornamental landscaping there were never executed.


Anticipating his retirement to Monticello, Jefferson conceived of many of his most ambitious gardening efforts while serving as president of the United States. In mid- to late April 1807, he composed a rough sketch and, during his spring vacation, he planted twenty oval-shaped flower beds off the corners or angles of the house. Each bed was planted with a different species, and included Lewis and Clark discoveries like the yellowbell (Fritillaria pudica), native Virginia wildflowers such as the summer blooming cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and Old World florist’s flowers like tulips and anemones. The sketch also detailed small, circular beds for flowering shrubs, as well as a chart delineating the general location for the addition of thirty-five shade and flowering trees in “clumps.” Jefferson sketched this plan during a difficult period of his public life, when he was suffering from severe headaches and the stress of the Aaron Burr treason trial then taking place in Richmond.

The American Gardener's Calendar

After returning to Washington, Jefferson received a discouraging letter from his granddaughter Anne Randolph in the autumn of 1806. She wrote that the flowering bulbs had thrived, but none of the seeds planted that spring had germinated. Indefatigable, Jefferson wrote to her the following June “that the limited number of our flower beds will too much restrain the variety of flowers in which we might wish to indulge, & therefore I have resumed an idea … of a winding walk … with a narrow border of flowers on each side.” The winding walk on the west lawn was laid out in the spring of 1808, probably first planted after Jefferson returned from the presidency in 1809, and by 1812 it was organized into ten-foot-long beds, each planted with a different flower. The writings of the Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon likely inspired both the oval flower beds and the serpentine flower walk at Monticello. McMahon not only provided seeds and plants for the gardens at Monticello, but his treatise, The American Gardener’s Calendar (1806), also served as a horticultural manual that included an essay on laying out pleasure grounds with raised flower beds and winding walkways. As Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello, Edmund Bacon, recalled, “There were walks, and borders, and flowers, that I have never seen or heard of anywhere else. Some of them were in bloom from early in the spring until late in the winter.”


Jefferson has been described as America’s “first distinguished viticulturist” and “the greatest patron of wine and winegrowing that this country has yet had.” He wrote that “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap,” and that “wine from long habit has become indispensable to my health.” His viticultural legacy, usually as a failed winemaker, is often recalled by the Virginia wine industry. Vineyards were planted intensively at Monticello on seven separate occasions from 1774 until 1816, the replantings suggesting a perennial problem with grape cultivation because of disease, transportation problems, or simple neglect. Grapes were harvested at Monticello, but no record of winemaking has survived. Jefferson’s most completely documented grape planting also occurred during a vacation from the presidency, in March 1807. Two vineyards, totaling 25,000 square feet and ideally sited for grape cultivation in the heart of the Monticello South Orchard, were planted with 287 rooted vines and cuttings of twenty-four varieties of the European grape Vitis vinifera. This profusion of grape varieties, many of them table grapes from northern Italy, suggests that winemaking was secondary to experimentation.

Vegetable Garden

Edmund Bacon

Jefferson reserved the term “garden” exclusively for the vegetable garden, his chief horticultural achievement at Monticello. Although crops had been cultivated in beds on the southeastern-facing slope between Mulberry Row and the South Orchard since the 1770s, the development of the 1,000-foot-long terrace began in 1806. Jefferson hired seven enslaved African Americans from a Fredericksburg farmer to move, under the direction of overseer Edmund Bacon, 200,000 cubic feet of earth with a mule and cart to create a level garden. The terrace was supported by a stone wall, twelve feet high in its tallest section, and a classical garden pavilion, or temple, was constructed in 1812 atop the wall at the halfway point of the garden. Twelve and a half feet square with double sash windows, Chinese railings, and a pyramidal roof, the pavilion was reported to have been a favorite place for Jefferson to read. It was the only detached garden structure actually built at Monticello, and at least two visitors referred to it as an “observatory” because of the fifty-mile views to the southeast across the Virginia piedmont.

Mrs. Thomas M. Randolph

Jefferson expressed his essential philosophy of gardening in a letter to his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph after she complained of insect-riddled vegetables at Monticello. He wrote, “We will try this winter to cover our garden with a heavy coat of manure. when earth is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yeilds in abundance, & of the best quality. I suspect that the insects which have harassed you have been encouraged by the feebleness of your plants, & that has been produced by the lean state of the soil.” An experimenter who documented many failed plantings during his horticultural career, Jefferson also wrote, “I have always thought that if in the experiments to introduce … new plants, one species in an hundred is found useful & succeeds, the ninety nine found otherwise are more than paid for.” Jefferson not only believed in a wholesome balance of nature and the garden, but he also held a holistic approach to the gardening process, where “the failure of one thing [is] repaired by the success of another.”

Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson

Enslaved African Americans performed the bulk of the labor in the gardens at both Poplar Forest and Monticello, whether hauling manure to the vegetable garden, sowing seeds in Jefferson’s nursery of prized species, or preparing flower beds for his daughters. Margaret Bayard Smith suggested after a visit to Monticello in 1809 that Jefferson himself sowed seeds in the vegetable garden. He repeatedly rearranged the size and character of the beds in this garden, using a theodolite and chain to delineate angles and distances precisely. Enslaved gardener Wormley Hughes is regarded as Monticello’s head gardener after 1800, but Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph and his granddaughters, as well as a series of European gardeners from Italy and Scotland, also assisted with the care of Monticello’s fruit, vegetable, and flower gardens. Jefferson, according to the 1847 recollection of one of his former slaves Isaac Granger Jefferson, “would work sometimes in the garden for half an hour at a time in right good earnest in the cool of the evening.”

Peas in Pods

The English pea is regarded as Jefferson’s favorite vegetable. He participated in a tradition with his Albemarle County neighbors that whoever harvested the first pea would host a celebratory dinner for the others, and he reserved extensive real estate in his garden for some twenty-three varieties. Jefferson documented harvesting lettuce every month of the year. In a garden guide he authored that was published in 1824 in a national periodical, the American Farmer, he urged gardeners to sow a thimbleful of lettuce seeds every Monday morning from February 1 until September 1. Harvest dates for French artichokes, asparagus, and sea kale, an unusual cabbage-like leaf crop, were duly recorded every year in the Garden Book. Cucumbers were a “great favorite” of Jefferson, but according to a jocular family story related by his great-granddaughter in 1866, he never recovered from eating a garden cucumber a few days before his death on July 4, 1826. Jefferson was, ultimately, a pioneer in the cultivation of eggplants, sesame, hot peppers, okra, tomatoes, rutabagas, salsify, and scores of other culinary novelties from the vegetable world.

Fruits and Trees

Fruit growing was another of Thomas Jefferson’s gardening passions. A flurry of planting took place in the early retirement years between 1809 and 1814. Jefferson’s “Fruitery” occupied six acres and included the 400-tree South Orchard, vineyards, and “berry squares.” The Monticello North Orchard was primarily reserved for cider apples, and “the precious refreshment” of their fruit. Jefferson documented planting 170 varieties of the finest fancy fruit known at the time. The peach was probably his favorite, as he grew more than thirty-eight varieties and proclaimed from Poplar Forest in 1815, “We abound in the luxury of the peach.” Among his four most-treasured apple varieties were the Newtown Pippin, which he wrote had no equal in Europe, and the Taliaferro, a now-lost cider apple that made a liquor “nearer to the silky Champaigne than any other.”

Jefferson visited his retreat home at Poplar Forest, near Lynchburg, between two and four times a year between 1810 and his last trip there in 1823. Its landscape displayed a return to the design sensibility of the 1770s and 1780s. The octagon-shaped house was built using Palladian principles, and the grounds were designed to mirror and contribute to the geometry and classicism of the architecture. For example, mulberry trees were planted to replicate the missing northern wing of the house, and both the extended dependencies were punctuated with large earthen mounds planted with both fastigiate (poplars) and umbrella-shaped (willows) tree species to suggest the design of Palladian-style pavilions or offices. A symmetrical sunken lawn or bowling green, framed with ornamental tree and shrub plantings, was planned for the south side of the house, likely using perspective to emphasize the immediacy of the architecture. Emanating from the ornamental grounds of his rural villa to the tobacco fields, pastures, and forest were circular roads and squared and rectilinear fenced areas, designed by Jefferson, that served as a landscape transition between the pleasure grounds and the working plantation. As he had done at Monticello, he planted clumps of trees, shrubberies, and flower beds around his Roman villa in Bedford County.

Ornamental trees also ranked high among Jefferson’s gardening achievements. Visitors to Monticello were given tours of what one guest described as his “pet trees.” Guests also commonly commented on the lofty trees that crowned the summit of Monticello. Jefferson has been described as “the father of American forestry” for an intensive planting of white pine and hemlock he supervised in 1804. He wrote about planting groves of native and exotic species, clumps of ornamentals adjacent to the house, and allées of mulberry and honey locust along his road network of “roundabouts.” Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the arboreal world persisted to his last years, when he envisioned an arboretum for the University of Virginia two months before his death. He was perhaps inspired by his own adage: “Too old to plant trees for my own gratification, I shall do it for my posterity.”

  • Betts, Edwin Morris, ed. Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, 1766–1824; with Relevant Extracts from His Other Writings. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1944.
  • Betts, Edwin Morris, and Hazlehurst Bolton Perkins. Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Garden at Monticello. 2nd ed. Revised and enlarged by Peter J. Hatch. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971.
  • Hatch, Peter J. The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
  • Hatch, Peter J. “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012.
APA Citation:
Hatch, Peter. Jefferson, Thomas and Gardening. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jefferson-thomas-and-gardening.
MLA Citation:
Hatch, Peter. "Jefferson, Thomas and Gardening" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, March 18
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