Jefferson’s Garden

President Thomas Jefferson exemplified the scholarly, masterful gardener. He determined to find, propagate, and share useful plants from around the world that could stabilize our fledgling agriculture and delight our eyes and palate. Have fun growing the very strains that he grew, some even procured from Monticello itself.

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Pickling Cucumbers

President Jefferson kept a pickle barrel at his residence in Washington D.C. to offer to guests. He especially appreciated the long season of the gherkin and recommended it to his brother.

cucumbers
  • Variety: West Indian Gherkin
  • Plant seeds indoors 1/2″ deep three weeks before last frost, or seed in garden after frost.
  • Transplant into garden after frost and when soil is 65 to 70 degrees F.
  • Spacing: one per sq. ft. for bush type; two per sq. ft. for vining type
  • Extend harvest with a second crop planted two weeks later.
  • Days to harvest: 50 to 60 after transplanting. Not frost-hardy.
  • Hint: Use row covers until flowering to keep off insects.
  • Storage tip from Monticello Shop‘s site: “Harvest the fruits when 1” – 2” around, dress with salt for 24 hours, and then pack them into glass jars. Cover with warm malt vinegar and add ½ teaspoon of dill seed. Secure jars with air-tight lids: the pickled gherkins will be ready in about two months.”

Nutmeg Plant

Known by many different names, Nigella sativa pleases the eye and the palate. Its feathery fronds, delicate flowers, and tasty, aromatic seed make it a multi-purpose plant. President Jefferson began growing it at Monticello in 1810. The seeds of this hardy annual are sprinkled on cakes and bread and spice Indian and Middle Eastern curries, vegetables, and bean dishes. Both naan bread and Armenian string cheese benefit from its flavor, an intriguing blend similar to onion, black pepper, and oregano. According to Nestlé, it also has use in reducing allergic reactions to food.

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  • Sow seeds directly in garden in early spring. Plant 1/4″ deep.
  • Spacing: about two plants per sq. ft.
  • Can be succession sown every three weeks until the start of summer.
  • Hint: For more information, visit Gardeners HQ and Plants for a Future.

Peas

Apparently, President Jefferson encouraged a spring tradition among his neighbors, competing for the earliest crop of peas. The winner hosted a dinner party for all the rest featuring the prize peas as the centerpiece. Mr. Jefferson delighted in trying many different varieties, and below, you will find some of the most popular.

peas
  • Varieties: Prince Albert, Tom Thumb, Champion of England, Marrowfat, Blue-podded Capucijner, and Dwarf Grey Sugar
  • Plant outdoors 1″ deep as soon as soil can be worked.
  • Spacing: 9 to 16 per sq. ft. Provide support with string or wire trellis.
  • For a fall crop, plant again six to eight weeks before frost.
  • Days to harvest: 50 to 60 from planting seeds. Very frost-hardy.
  • Hint: Add legume inoculant to soil when planting to increase vigor and yield.

Nasturtium

Easy-to-grow and with multi-colored blooms, nasturtium makes a delightful surprise in salad. The leaves, flowers, and seeds are all edible and lend a peppery flavor to foods. Thomas Jefferson pickled the immature pods and seeds for use as capers. 

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  • For earlier blooms, seeds may be started indoors four to six weeks before the last frost (early April).
  • For faster germination, first chip the seed coat with a nail clipper.
  • Sow seeds 1/2″ deep.
  • Spacing: one or two plants per sq. ft.
  • Hint: Rich soil will give you a lot of leaf growth, while poor soil will give you more flower growth.

Kale

Also called Tuscan kale, black kale, or dinosaur kale, Lacinato kale contains a powerhouse of nutrients and withstands cold temperatures very well. In Tuscany, it is popular in thick, hearty stews, often made with extra ingredients from the previous day’s dinner. Another delicious way to serve Lacinato kale is to massage it with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and Parmesan for a fresh salad. Superb! Even the kids gobble it up.

kale
  • Variety: Lacinato
  • Sow seeds 1/2″ deep indoors eight weeks before last frost or in garden six weeks before last frost.
  • Transplant seedlings into garden up to six weeks before last frost. Very frost-hardy.
  • Spacing: one or two plants per sq. ft., depending on variety. Can be planted midsummer wherever early crops are removed.
  • Kale continues to grow and produce leaves until late fall.
  • Days to harvest: 60. Very frost-hardy.
  • Hints: Kale can be grown in part shade. It needs plenty of moisture, so mulch well. For a perennially available version, the president preferred sea kale.

Onions

President Jefferson’s discovery of the “tree onion” offered the benefit of having onions steadily available for harvest. Extremely cold temperatures leave tree onions unharmed, and they make a nice addition to other perennial favorites, like rhubarb and asparagus. They form small bulbs under ground and a cluster of bulbs at the top of their stalk that will eventually sprout, bend over, and plant itself in the soil – thus, its other name, the Egyptian walking onion. Every part is edible.

onions
  • Variety: “Tree,” also known as Egyptian Walking
  • Break off bulbils, and plant no more than 1″ deep.
  • Spacing: nine per sq. ft.
  • Established clumps can be divided in spring.
  • Hint: Underdeveloped, underground bulbs are edible but hot.

Okra

A later addition to Thomas Jefferson’s garden, okra originated in Africa. Its large, handsome flowers make you look twice. For a real treat, try an authentic old-style recipe for gumbo or Mary Randolph’s other recipe for “Ocra and Tomatas.”

okra
  • Variety: Cow’s Horn
  • Start seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost.
  • Transplant into garden after soil reaches 65 degrees F and nighttime temperatures stay above 60.
  • Spacing: one plant per sq. ft.
  • Days to harvest: 50 to 70, depending on weather.
  • Hint: Use black plastic to warm soil and intensify heat around the plant.

Peanuts

Both Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Jimmy Carter farmed peanuts. Peanuts can be eaten, raw, roasted, boiled, or in beverages. Called groundnuts by the African residents of Kalas Village, this plant can be truly multi-purpose. George Washington Carver promoted its use by low-income families who desperately needed the nutrition and diversity it could offer both in edible, soil-building, and household uses (105 food recipes and about 100 farm and household products).

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  • Use in-the-shell, raw peanuts, and plant 2″ deep directly in the garden a few weeks after the average last frost date (end of May) by carefully cracking the shell and planting each peanut separately, with its pink skin in tact.
  • Spacing: 2 per sq. ft., staggered
  • Days to harvest: 100 to 130, depending on variety and the way you choose to eat them. Harvest earlier for boiling, and leave until the plant yellows for roasting.
  • Hint: If harvesting for later use, allow the peanuts in their shells to air dry for about a month (for more info).

Beans

beans
  • Varieties: Whippoorwill cowpea, Guinea bean, Asparagus bean, and Scarlet Runner bean
  • Sow seeds 1″ deep directly in garden after all danger of frost.
  • Spacing: four plants per sq. ft. for bush beans, six to eight plants per sq. ft. for pole beans
  • Plant second crop of bush beans (if needed) two weeks after first planting.
  • Days to harvest: 50-80 from seed, depending on variety. Not frost-hardy.
  • Hint: Add a legume inoculant when planting to increase vigor and yield.

Corn

Once you harvest your first homegrown ears, try the president’s recipe for fresh corn pudding.

corn
  • Variety: Stowell’s Evergreen white
  • Sow seeds 1″ deep directly in garden.
  • Spacing: Plant four seeds per sq. ft.; thin to two plants per sq. ft.
  • Plant after frost, when soil reaches 60 degrees F.
  • Need to grow at least 12 to 18 plants of same variety to ensure good pollination.
  • Days to harvest: 65 to 75 from planting. Not frost-hardy.
  • Hints: Use garden fabric (row covers) early in spring to protect against frost and crows.

Tomatoes

Oddly enough, tomatoes were not a commonly popular vegetable in Thomas Jefferson’s time. They were spurned for their sensual appearance and strong scent when brushing up against the foliage. However, President Jefferson did not let this deter him, and the fruit/vegetable made a regular appearance on his table and even in court (where the case of the vegetable fruit was determined to be a vegetable for legal taxation purposes and a fruit for botanical classification).

tomatoes
  • Variety: Cherokee Purple
  • Plant seeds 1/4″ deep indoors, six to eight weeks before last frost.
  • Transplant into garden one to two weeks after last frost or when soil reaches 65 degrees F.
  • Spacing: one plant per sq. ft. if grown on trellis. (Four squares required if grown with cage, nine if grown with no support). May grow early season crops nearby to allow more room later.
  • Days to harvest: 55 to 100 from transplanting, depending on variety. Not frost-hardy.
  • Hint: Remove lower leaves before planting, and bury extra stem.

Lettuce

Most of the vegetable varieties had disappeared from Monticello by the late 1900s. However, a gardener who truly appreciated the Jeffersonian cultivation of foods, Peter Hatch, made it his personal mission to bring back as many of the president’s vegetable varieties as possible. The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation sent Mr. Hatch the president’s favorite lettuce, “Tennis Ball,” which he preferred for its ease of care.

lettuce
  • Varieties: Tennis Ball, Spotted Aleppo
  • Sow seed indoors 1/4″ deep, eight weeks before last frost or in garden when soil is 50 degrees F.
  • Transplant seedlings when four weeks old.
  • Spacing: Start with five seedlings, eat four as they grow, and let one head mature to full size.
  • Plant more lettuce seeds every two to four weeks for a continuous supply.
  • Days to harvest: 50 to full size. Edible anytime. Replant every two weeks. Frost-hardy.
  • Hint: Lettuce dislikes heat. Give plants afternoon shade and lots of water.

Corn Salad

Mr. Jefferson suggested sowing a thimble-full of lettuces every Monday and radishes every other week during the growing season, so he would never be without his salad. His usual, flavorful mix included corn salad, nasturtium, endive, orach, and fresh sesame oil. For this and other meals created by the president’s staff, see this article.

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  • Also known as “mache,” it is sweet, slightly nutty, tender, and juicy.
  • Sprinkle sparingly directly in the garden, and cover at a depth of 1/4″. 
  • Spacing: When large enough, thin seedlings to about 3″ apart.
  • Germination time: 14-28 days, keep moist.
  • Succession sow every two to four weeks for a continuous supply.
  • Self-sows readily. Harvest most of the rosettes, but allow a few flowers to form seeds.
  • Days to harvest: 60 to full size. Edible anytime. Snip and eat outer leaves as it is growing. Replant every two weeks. Very frost-hardy.
  • Hints: Prefers to germinate in early spring or fall. Will bolt at 80°. Water regularly, and add mulch.

Cherry Tomatoes

cherry_tomato
  • Variety: Yellow Pear
  • Sow seed indoors 1/4” deep, six to eight weeks before last frost. Choose a compact patio type for raised beds, or plan to install a support for tall varieties.
  • Transplant into garden one to two weeks after last frost or when soil reaches 65 degrees F.
  • Spacing: one plant per sq. ft. if grown on trellis. (Four squares required if grown with cage, nine if grown with no support). May grow early season crops nearby to allow more room later.
  • Days to harvest: 55 to 100 from transplanting, depending on variety. Not frost-hardy.
  • Hint: Remove lower leaves before planting, and bury extra stem.

Orach

Orach makes a stunning contrast to the green of a basic salad. Its taste is pleasant, and its appearance in the bowl is even more pleasing.

redorach_r2_c1
  • Variety: Red
  • Sow in spring as soon as soil can be worked. Cover thinly, and keep moist.
  • Spacing: 36 per sq. ft.
  • Thin as necessary, using the thinnings. Harvest the young leaves like spinach.
  • Though it is a cool season plant, orach can be harvested over a longer season than spinach without bolting or acquiring a bitter taste.
  • Hints: For ideas on how to keep your greens fresh and a delicious dressing used in the president’s house, see here.

Eggplant

If your children do not like eggplant, they would be delighted to learn that during Thomas Jefferson’s time it was thought to cause bad breath, leprosy, cancer or even insanity! He ignored these whisperings, however, and cultivated both the purple and white varieties. You will likely find it a palate-pleaser both fried, like the president ate, and caramelized.

asian_eggplant
  • Variety: white
  • Start seeds 1/4″ deep indoors eight weeks before last frost.
  • Transplant seedlings when soil reaches 70 degrees F or three weeks after last frost.
  • Spacing: one per sq. ft.
  • Days to harvest: 55 to 70 from transplant. Not frost-hardy.
  • Hints: Bugs love eggplants. Protect with garden fabric (row cover) even after flowering. Without covering, the whole plant may be lost to flea beetles, as many of them were in our community garden in 2015. The few that evaded the beetles were hidden in beds dominated by pepper plants and produced in fall.

“Pumpkin”

The Black Futsu squash has a rich hazelnut flavor with good insect resistance. Both presidents Washington and Jefferson grew many varieties of “pumpkin,” adopted from the Native Americans. Thomas Jefferson consumed a portion of his bounty in gumbo soup flavored with bacon.

pumpkins
  • Varieties: Black pumpkin, also known as Black Futsu squash, or Green Hubbard winter squash
  • Start seeds indoors three to four weeks before last frost, or sow directly after soil has warmed to 60 degrees F.
  • If transplanting, handle carefully to avoid disturbing roots.
  • Spacing: one per sq. ft. Locate at outer edge of bed, and let vines run up a trellis. Small pumpkins have shorter vines.
  • Hint: For best storage, leave stems long, and cut stems cleanly from vine (Do not pull or tear).

Pineapple Melon

Because they are small, these very sweet, highly perfumed “Pineapple” melons are ideal for cultivation on a trellis. The unripe melons can be pickled or candied, while the ripe fruits present the perfect size for single-serving dessert cups. The sweet, spicy, and aromatic Green Nutmeg melon was also grown by President Jefferson and is an early producer.

melon
  • Varieties: Pineapple, also known as “Ananas d’Amerique a Chair Verte” melon, or Green Nutmeg melon
  • Sow 1/2″ deep in garden two to three weeks after last spring frost or indoors at time of last frost.
  • Transplant seedlings (if started indoors) when small and soil has reached 70 degrees F.
  • Spacing: one or two plants per sq. ft.
  • Days to harvest: 75 from transplant. Not frost-hardy. One crop per season.
  • Hint: Cover soil surface with plastic, or grow vines on trellis to keep melons off soil.

Lentils

A French priest introduced lentils to the United States, via the Iroquois tribe of Native Americans in the 18th century. They were then later cultivated by Virginia farmers and the soon-to-be president himself. Americans still have yet to take full advantage of this healthful food and eat only 1/20th of the amount eaten by the average Asian Indian per year.

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  • Sow directly in the garden around the second week of May, 1″ apart.
  • Spacing: thin to 4″ apart.
  • Days to harvest: 70 to 80 for green pods; 110 for dried lentils. Hardy.
  • Companion plants: tomatoes, cucumbers, summer savory. Avoid planting near onions or garlic.
  • Hint: Keep watch for aphids or weevils. If weevils infest a plant, take it out, and destroy it. For ideas on how to use lentils, see this article.

Alpine Strawberries

President Jefferson appreciated this plant so much that he told President Monroe it was one of the three objects with which he should enrich our country. Included in this design as a novelty, since Mr. Jefferson later stated it needs to be grown in quantity in a field to yield enough for a bowl, nonetheless, they yield a delightful flavor when fully ripe.

alpine_strawberry
  • Variety: Alpine
  • Transplant starter plants in spring a week or two before the last frost date.
  • Space plants 12″ apart. Position carefully, keeping the crown of the plant even with the soil surface.
  • Harvest berries several times a week when they are deep red and “give” slightly.
  • Keep soil moist but not soggy. Mulch to retain moisture and protect fruit from rot.
  • Hint: Divide plants every two to three years.

Carrots

carrots
  • Variety: Rouge Demi-Longue d’Chantenay
  • Sow seeds in garden 1/4″ deep three weeks before last spring frost.
  • Spacing: Plant 30 seeds per sq. ft.; thin to 16 plants per sq. ft.
  • Replant six to eight weeks before fall frost for late crop.
  • Days to harvest: 55 to 70 from seed. Frost-hardy.
  • Hints: Before planting, loosen soil to 12″, remove stones, and add compost. Superb flavor for canning, freezing, or fresh.

Hot Pepper

An attractive form of cayenne pepper, African-American cooks commonly used the fish pepper in their seafood recipes or for drying into a spicy chili powder.

chilli_peppers
  • Variety: Fish peppers (Do not worry, they do not smell or taste fishy.)
  • Start seeds indoors 1/4″ deep 10 to 12 weeks before last frost.
  • Transplant into garden three weeks after last frost or when soil reaches 70 degrees F.
  • Fruits are edible from early green to full-color maturity. Heat increases with maturity.
  • Spacing: one plant per sq. ft.
  • Days to harvest: 50 to 65 green, 80 to 85 to full color. Not frost-hardy.
  • Hint: Do not fertilize peppers. Water sparingly.