Saturday, April 28, 2012

Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden

I'll admit it.  I've been obsessed with this book since I originally read an article about Peter Hatch and the restoration of Jefferson's gardens at Monticello in the summer of 2010.  That was the summer that I planted my first heirloom garden.  In my enthusiasm for the new pursuit, I feverishly sought out and digested any tidbit of knowledge about heirlooms that I could find.  I was so inspired by the idea of Thomas Jefferson as a pioneer in American gardening that I googled Hatch and his book, only to find that it was still in the early planning stages.  Imagine my disappointment in finding out that I would have to patiently await its publication!  (To read the original New York Times article, see link below.  It is definitely worth the read!)

Fast forward two years later, and it is finally here!  I advance ordered my copy on Amazon earlier this winter and the book arrived on my doorstep a few weeks ago.  My husband was a smart enough man to make dinner that night, offering me the chance to snuggle up on the couch and savor my long awaited book.

Now, as a historian, I've studied the full breadth of American history and certainly have an appreciation for the Founding Fathers and their contributions to American politics and culture.  But although I was aware that gardening took place on the property of many prominent early Americans, I never realized that Jefferson was somewhat of a pioneer and early gardening activist.  As it turns out, Jefferson was responsible for bringing many of today's treasured heirlooms to America from across the globe.  He avidly collected seeds during his travels, and brought them back to Monticello to experiment in his own garden.  Jefferson's detailed journals for each year's garden have made it possible to accurately restore his gardens at Monticello.  Hatch has spent the last 30 years overseeing the effort.

And the book itself?  Breathtaking.  The photos are beautiful, the research is impeccable, and the story is captivating.  From a historian's perspective, Hatch provides a new depth to the understanding of Jefferson's character.  From a gardener's perspective, the book serves as an inspiration to grow and treasure heirlooms.  

Hatch, Peter J.  "A Rich Spot of Earth": Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rainy Day Inspiration: The Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection

Few things make me happier on a rainy day than to peruse my favorite garden images.  Photographs of bright flowers, perfectly ripe vegetables, fountains, and garden paths have the ability to lift my spirits like no other tonic.  The Internet is ripe with inspiring images, and I recently discovered a fascinating new collection. 
The Library of Congress has digitized the garden photography of Frances Benjamin Johnston, a Victorian-era photojournalist and portrait photographer.  Johnston trained in Paris in the 1880s and opened her first studio in the United States around 1890.  She became interested in garden and estate photography in the 1910s.
Here are a few of my favorite images from the Library of Congress Collection.

"Senuelo," (Path to rose garden).  Library of Congress,

"House of Usefulness," (schoolhouse window box).  Library of Congress, 

Mary Ball Washington House, View to flower garden.  Library of Congress,
To see more images from this beautiful collection, visit Library of Congress .

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Glimpse into the Kitchen Garden: April 1867

The 19th-century kitchen garden bares remarkable resemblance to its modern counterpart.  Lettuce, beets, peas, and radishes were all common choices for early planting.  Cold frames were utilized to protect early crops, like lettuce, from frost.  I've been identifying many of these similarities as I've perused the historical collection of North Western Farmer (aka Indiana Farmer) newspaper issues. 

The month of April was a busy one in the kitchen garden, as it was prepared for the year ahead.  Refuse was cleared, manure spread, and soil spaded.  Once these tasks had been completed, planting began.  Without the use of modern electricity, farmers could not start heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers indoors.  Instead, they used a hot-bed, which was essentially a cold frame heated with an under planting of fresh, "hot" manure.

Here's a list of the planting tasks undertaken in 1867 kitchen gardens throughout the month of April:
  • Established beds of Asparagus were treated to a mix of manure with a little added salt.  New beds, if needed, were planted.
  • A few early bean plants were started in hot-beds on inverted pieces of sod.  These would be moved to open garden space after danger of frost had passed.
  • Beats were sowed early with a large quantity of manure.
  • Cabbage was most commonly sowed by first burning a brush heap in the desired garden location.  While the ground was still warm, the ash was spaded into the ground.  Finally, cabbage seeds were sowed by raking or brushing them evenly into the mixture.
  • Lettuce was sowed in the cold frame, or directly into garden beds later in the month.
  • Onions sets were planted in the ground.  If seeds were used, these were not planted until later in the season.
  • Parsnips were sown as soon as the soil had been prepared, in drills 18 inches apart.  They were thinned to 8-10 inches in rows.
  • Peas were direct-sown throughout the month.
  • Peppers were started in the hot-bed.
  • The Irish potato was sometimes planted in the kitchen garden, if space allowed.  Otherwise, it was planted in the fields.
  • Radishes were sown in rich, not sandy, soil.
  • Rhubarb was propagated by division of roots and planted in deep, rich soil.  Recommended varieties included Linnaeus (Myatt Wine), Large New Hybrid, Magnum Bonum, and Peach.  
  • Tomatoes, which had been started from seed in March, were potted into 2-3 inch pots.
(Source: "Kitchen Gardens." The North Western Farmer, vol. 2, no. 4 (April 1867): 62.)

Image Credit:
Wm. Henry Maule, Maule's Seed Catalogue for 1888 (1888), available at Smithsonian Digital Collections,

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Work in Progress

Gardening is a constant, fluid pursuit.  The work is never really completed; only small tasks end while others begin.  A garden is never weed free.  Pruning and dead-heading will ebb and flow.  The cabbage beetle might be eradicated, but tomorrow the tomato horn worm will invade. 
This is the constant, never ending journey in which I have chosen to take part.  Sometimes, I ask myself "why?".  But then I remember that as much as it frustrates me when things go wrong, it is precisely this beautiful cycle of success and failure that draws me to my garden.  I have a tendency to seek perfection, to be dissatisfied with average, and completely upended by failure.  But gardening helps me to practice patience and flexibility, and allows me to channel my tensions into a healthy pursuit.  The moments of success may be fleeting -- a beautiful patch of tulips one day droops and fades the next; a pristine head of lettuce is picked off by a hungry bunny; a seemingly healthy patch of squash is decimated overnight by powdery mildew -- but those moments of beauty and promise keep me coming back day after day.
We are just gearing up for planting season, and right now the ground is fallow.  But throughout the late spring, summer, and early fall, garden veggies will grace us with their presence, feed us, and slowly wither away.  Beans will die out long before tomatoes.  Crops like Swiss Chard will hang on until the bitter, frostbitten end.  Everything will eventually die.  Annuals in the flower beds will need to be pulled and replaced the following spring.  Perennials will go into hibernation.  Then, the following spring, the whole process will start over again.
A gardener never rests for long.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Bull Nose: A Pictorial Story of My Germination Part 1

I was separated from my siblings and taken from the seed packet that I had called home for the last several months.  A set of warm, soft hands placed me in a peat pot and covered me over with a thin layer of dirt.  My new home was moist, warm, and dark.  

For several weeks, I lay dormant, absorbing the warmth and moisture.  Finally, one day, my shell cracked open and my green stem popped out.  I began to reach for the light, and within 24 hours, I was able to lift my baby leaves upright.   

For the first time, I could see my surroundings!  I noticed that several of my sibling pepper seeds had been planted in peat pots, and were happily enjoying their first light too.  We were placed on a cart in a sunny window, with a bright grow light that hummed all day long.  I stretched my stem towards the light, reaching out to its rays.

Every few days, I was removed from my happy home and placed in a tray of tepid water.  When my peat pot was saturated, I was moved back to my cart.  I continued to soak up warmth and light. 

A little over a week later, I awoke one morning to find that my first set of true leaves had emerged!  And what beautiful leaves they were!  I admired myself in the reflection from the sunny window.  Soon, I would be big and strong, and ready to venture outside...