Lessons from Thomas Jefferson’s organic garden (The Seattle Times)

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Lessons from Thomas Jefferson’s organic garden

The Gardener Within: Master Gardener Joe Lamp’l explores how Thomas Jefferson’s garden may inspire today’s homeowners and gardeners.


Scripps Howard News Service

One of the central techniques contributing to the success of the Thomas Jefferson garden is the focus on soil health and fertility by regular additions of organic matter.

Vegetable gardeners have discovered it’s not necessary to arm yourself with an arsenal of chemicals to grow great produce. As many of us have realized, we need to be more environmentally conscious both inside and outside our homes.

Gardens are living systems. A healthy garden starts from the ground up. In our quest to find examples of eco-friendly gardens around the country for my PBS show, “Growing a Greener World,” we featured the garden of one of America’s most famous organic gardeners, Thomas Jefferson.

Monticello is on a mountaintop, just outside Charlottesville, Va. Jefferson’s 5,000-acre plantation served not only as his food supply, but also as a living laboratory. Jefferson grew plants from all over the world, including interesting vegetables such as sea kale, cardoon, Caracalla beans, Florence fennel, fava beans and crowder peas.

While we can learn many lessons from Jefferson’s gardening techniques, a central principle involves regularly adding organic matter for soil health and fertility. Think of soil rich in organic matter as a savings account for your plants. The nutrients you deposit are released back to your plants much like a steady income. Regular additions are necessary to meet the demand. Nutrients found in organic matter stay in the soil longer than water-soluble synthetics, which rapidly leach well beyond the root zone.

Jefferson was one of the first to make the connection between healthy soil and healthy plants. Monticello’s kitchen garden is legendary for the variety and scope of its vegetable production. Jefferson’s garden was situated on a sunny southern slope. He took meticulous notes about everything, including when he sowed his crops and when they were harvested. He noted crop conditions, observed pests and diseases and recorded how he solved problems. Jefferson had many failures, but this did not deter him from continuing to work in his beloved garden.


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.