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Lecture to examine Jefferson's gardening at Monticello

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Peter Hatch is certain that Thomas Jefferson didn't spend his days on his terrace drinking mint juleps while others tended to the grounds at Monticello -- he was a hands-on gardener who not only recorded the daily garden happenings but also got his hands dirty planting and working the soil.

"In the cold winter months, he was out with a transit and chain laying out gardens," Hatch said. "He was probably out there with Wormley Hughes." Hughes was the nephew of Sally Hemings, and he was trained as a gardener by Robert Bailey, the Scottish gardener who worked at Monticello. Jefferson often refers to Hughes' gardening activities in his records.

"He dug Jefferson's grave," Hatch said in a recent phone interview.

Gardeners and historians alike can learn more about Jefferson and Monticello at the upcoming Little Lecture presented by the West Virginia Humanities Council. Hatch, director of Grounds and Gardens at Monticello, will talk about his upcoming book, "A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden at Monticello."

Hatch will speak at 2 p.m. March 18 at the MacFarland-Hubbard House, 1310 Kanawha Blvd. E. Seating is limited for the program and people interested in attending should confirm available seating by calling 304-346-8500 no later than noon March 14. Admission is $10 and includes a reception after the program.

Since 1977, Hatch has been responsible for the maintenance, interpretation and restoration of the 2,400-acre Monticello landscape. He is an adviser and source of plants for first lady Michelle Obama's White House kitchen garden, where there is a section dedicated to the garden legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

"Michelle Obama said the White House vegetable garden is the most important part of her legacy," Hatch said.

The Jefferson scholar majored in English at the University of North Carolina, and then went on to study landscape gardening at Sandhills Community College, Southern Pines, N.C. The unique education allows him the freedom to interpret Jefferson's lengthy and often profound writings about gardening.

"He was America's first 'foodie,'" Hatch said. "He was interested in organic gardening and local food."

Hatch called the vegetable garden at Monticello "Jefferson's Retirement Garden," as it was created for his return from the presidency and became one of his main retirement occupations. Hatch's admiration for Jefferson is obvious when he talks.

"At the ripe old age of 83, Jefferson read about 5-foot-long cucumbers in Cleveland, so he wrote to the governor of Ohio," and he acquired seeds so he could grow them himself.

"He was a child of enlightenment, a scientist, he related to his friends and political allies, and he had a playfulness in the garden -- he grew flowering beans in vegetable garden interspersed with purple and white eggplant," Hatch explained. "He wrote, in 1813 at 70, that he was 'an old man but a young gardener.'"

Hatch loves gardening as much as history, and he appreciates Jefferson's quest for success in the garden.

"Gardening is a great love of mine. The most challenging part of the job are the everyday tasks -- growing healthy cabbage, how to counteract drought, keeping the deer out of the tulips, these are the most challenging! The practical stuff is hardest in my nearly 35 years here at Monticello."

The legacy of Jefferson's gardening efforts is now seen in the burgeoning Virginia wine industry, Hatch said.

"He was first in food, first in wine, first in gardening. He was all things to all people -- it's hard to pin him down. He was a great republican to republicans, a democrat to democrats. An ambiguous figure, he's a great object of study."

Jefferson experimented with more than 330 varieties and some 99 species of vegetables. As president, he kept a chart of the vegetables that were available in the farmers market, and he would go around to the foreign embassies, collecting the most interesting and unusual vegetables from each country. He advised his French household administrator to pay the highest prices for vegetables such as tomatoes in season.

Jefferson introduced many unfamiliar species to Virginia gardeners that are now taken for granted, including tomatoes, okra, eggplant, lima beans, peanuts, peppers and black-eyed peas.

"He was very experimental; he developed a microclimate at Monticello that faces southeast," Hatch said. Jefferson had a master plan of dishes, copied from his French chef, and he may have been the first American to serve french fries.

"Monticello is like the Ellis Island of new plants. The experimental character is the best feature," Hatch said.

Hatch has managed important restoration projects, such as the eight-acre Vegetable and Fruit Garden, and the Grove, an ornamental forest of 18 acres. In 1987, Hatch initiated the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, a unique nursery to preserve historic and Jefferson-related garden plants.

He also oversees numerous educational programs, including the Garden Tours (for 35,000 annual visitors) and the Historic Landscape Institute, a two-week field school for students from around the nation. He was also project manager for the Thomas Jefferson Parkway, a $7 million federally and privately funded highway project to create a park along the entrance corridor to Monticello, and for Saunders Bridge, a stone arch bridge that now serves as the new entrance to Monticello.

Hatch is the author of "The Gardens of Monticello," the editor of "Thomas Jefferson's Flower Garden at Monticello" (University Press of Virginia), and has written numerous articles and lectured in 35 states on Jefferson and the history of garden plants. The University Press of Virginia published his scholarly study of early American pomology, "The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of American Horticulture," in 1999.

"Few gardeners failed as often as Jefferson," Hatch said. Because he freely shared seeds and plants, it wasn't a complete disaster. "When he would kill something in his garden, he could find it in a neighbor's garden."

"Jefferson said, 'The failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another,'" Hatch explained.

Hatch's appearance in Charleston coincides with upcoming grounds restoration work and improvements this year at the 1836 MacFarland-Hubbard House, headquarters of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The council plans to restore the grounds to their historic character, make additional improvements to the exterior of the property, and install botanical labels along an educational pathway.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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