Mr. Jefferson's green thumb

Monday Book Reviews

May 20, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano

THOMAS JEFFERSON'S GARDEN BOOK. Edited by Edwin Morris Betts. The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. 621 pages. $25.

WHAT WOULD Thomas Jefferson have thought of a president who hates broccoli?

Jefferson apparently was a broccoli kind of guy. At least we can assume as much because he planted plenty of it at his Virginia home.

Our third president's endeavors with broccoli and numerous other vegetables, fruits, flowers, shrubs and trees were recorded in a journal, or "garden book," that he kept from 1766 to 1824, two years before he died at the age of 83.

Published in 1944 by the American Philosophical Society, which Jefferson served as president for 18 years, the book has become a perennial favorite among gardeners who savor a good read as much as they enjoy a juicy, home-grown tomato. Each spring, after I've dusted off my shovel, hoe and trowel, I take out my copy of the book and dig in.

It's not the type of book you read cover to cover, but one you occasionally browse through for enjoyment, edification and inspiration. Studying Jefferson's elliptical, semi-poetic notations -- which seem not so dissimilar from the scrawls in my own gardening journal -- I feel as kindred in spirit to the genius of Monticello as I'm likely to.

Here, for example, are Jefferson's entries for a handful of days in April 1794:

". . . sowed a patch of [peas] . . . a great white frost off of the mountains. the Blue ridge covered with snow Due North from hence and for about 10 degrees E. & W. of the North . . . our first dish of Asparagus . . . another white frost off of the mountains. the peaches killed . . . first dish of Spinach . . . there are 8 sugar maples alive."

Mundane stuff, you might say, though it's just the sort of thing that we gardening nerds revel in. Then again, how mundane is it when the writer is Thomas Jefferson?

The volume encompasses more than the notes, maps and charts of Jefferson's original garden book. Starting with those materials, editor Edwin Morris Betts added parts of letters by and to Jefferson on matters horticultural, as well as pertinent passages from Jefferson's other writings, such as his notebooks on farming and the weather. An equally important feature of the book is the set of extensive footnotes by the editor, who in 1944 was a professor of biology at the University of Virginia (still called "Mr. Jefferson's university" for its founder).

In most of the letters, Jefferson is either asking his far-flung correspondents for seeds, plants, roots, fish for his pond and so on, or thanking them for having sent same. His many correspondents included George Washington, John Adams, James Madison and James Monroe -- heady company with which to be swapping gardening tips.

Not even the Revolutionary War kept Jefferson from his journal. The 1777 entries include references to the sowing of peas, cabbage, lettuce, radishes, strawberries, endive, red mustard, cucumbers, Lima beans and potatoes. That's yeomanly work for a man who also was helping his fledgling nation wrest its independence from the world's greatest empire. I know people who plant a great deal less, and the worst they have to contend with are testy in-laws.

Jefferson's writings make it clear that he preferred gardening to almost every other activity. Particularly during his later years, he seemed anxious to ditch politics for planting. In 1812, three years after he stepped down from the U.S. presidency, he wrote in a letter to a friend, "I have withdrawn myself from all political intermeddlings, to indulge the evening of my life with what have been the passions of every portion of it, books, science, my farms, my family and friends."

A year earlier, he had written to another friend, "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 comming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one through the year . . . I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener."

You'll appreciate the sentiment behind those words if you have ever worked a section of soil for the simple pleasure of it. But would a broccoli-hater understand? Read my lips: No way!

Patrick Ercolano is a member of the staff of The Evening Sun.

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