‘Gardening with Thomas Jefferson’ lecture a lesson in trial, error

By Josette Keelor

Americans remember Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States, but many might not appreciate his impact on American agriculture.

For instance, what was Jefferson doing on July 4, 1776 other than signing the Declaration of Independence?

Steve Carroll, director of public programs at Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce, told visitors at a recent that he looked up that information in “Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book,” published in 1849, and though Jefferson didn’t have time for his usual gardening entry that day, he did purchase a thermometer and record his garden’s temperature four times.

At Jefferson’s former home of Monticello in Charlottesville, 300 varieties of vegetables grow in just one of the plantation’s several gardens, and visitors to Blandy’s “Gardening with Thomas Jefferson” learned from Monticello’s chief vegetable gardener, Pat Brodowski, why his research matters today.

“His whole garden is an experimental patch,” Brodowski said. “He’s introducing plants, trying to figure out which ones work.”

Early settlers to the U.S. had to experiment with seeds they brought from Europe because of differences in temperatures and seasons.

These days, visitors will find Monticello’s garden has more varieties of some vegetables than it would have in Jefferson’s time, and some of what he planted isn’t used much anymore. But his garden is still a lesson in what might be.

Brodowski said Jefferson was influenced by physician friend Philip Mazzei from Tuscany, who helped him establish a vineyard at Monticello and helped him record information for his book.

“He and Jefferson, they really hit it off. They’re both, you know, these Renaissance types,” Brodowski said.

“So we grew a lot of Italian vegetables,” she said. One called Kohlrabi has long roots that children who visit Monticello think makes it looks like a spaceship. “All these arms come out kind of like Sputnick,” Brodowski said.

“This is actually like a cabbage family plant,” she said. “Kohl means cabbage, rabi means turnip. It’s a turnip cabbage. Turnip was the most popular vegetable in the world at the time. Everybody had turnips. It’s the basis of food through the Middle Ages.”

Inside it has a crunchy center like an apple that she said Monticello’s chefs chop up to make into slaw or cook like they would apples.

Another plant she grows is the radish, which is good in salads. Jefferson would plant them in rows with the endive because radishes grow so much more quickly.

“They’ll mark your row for you,” she said.

“Everything he was growing was loaded with vitamin C,” she said.

Carroll said the great collection of plants at Monticello is part of what inspired him to offer the program at Blandy, which is located at the Virginia State Arboretum and run by the University of Virginia. The program was funded by the Winchester-Clarke Garden Club.

Sally Baffa, a master gardener from Warrenton, came to satisfy hours toward her accreditation, and Robbin Arnold, a master gardener in Winchester, wanted to learn more about organic gardening techniques and pest control.

As part of the program, Brodowski demonstrated how to use flexible apple twigs and garden steaks to make a basket weave fence to prop up tomatoes, or make crisscrossing twigs in a lattice pattern to keep small animals out of the garden.

Brodowski said the vegetable garden at Monticello receives 440,000 visitors a year, and about a third of Blandy’s assembled crowd admitted to being part of that number, something Brodowski said she was glad to hear.

“It makes me want to feel like everyone wants to eat vegetables today.”

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com>