Thomas Jefferson and Why Garden Journals Matter

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Thomas Jefferson and Why Garden Journals Matter

For nearly 60 years, Thomas Jefferson – the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president – kept a detailed journal of his garden and farms. Starting in 1766, and continuing until 1824, Jefferson recorded every aspect of his property.

These garden and farm records played an important role in the restoration of Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello, according to Peter Hatch, who supervised the project and recently authored A Rich Spot of Earth (pictured above). Today, Jefferson’s garden journals continue to help modern gardeners appreciate his impressive horticultural achievements.

I bought the 1987 special edition of Jefferson’s Garden and Farm Books at a library book sale for two dollars (also pictured above). For a history buff like me, that was a great find. The volume featured Jefferson’s actual garden records at Monticello, plant lists and a horticultural bibliography for those interested in historical gardens. It also included Jefferson’s letters to George Washington, John Adams and James Madison.

The left book in this photo – Founding Gardeners – provides a rich history of how the Founding Fathers’ love of gardening and farming were fundamentally important to the creation of the United States.

1-1778

Garden Records Relive History
A master of detail, Jefferson observed nature in detail and recorded new varieties of trees, fruits, vegetables, shrubs and flowers. From his records we learn that in March 1790, “a cold wind in this month killed all the peaches at Monticello” but “the other species of fruits escaped tolerably well.”  

Thomas Jefferson home, monticello

We also learn that on:

•    Feb. 28, 1782, “a flock of wild geese flying to N.W.” was spotted.

•    March 30, 1766, “Purple hyacinth begins to bloom.”

•    April 19, 1794, the growing season’s “first dish of Spinach” was served from his garden.
A pioneer in meteorology, Jefferson started July 1, 1776 – and continued throughout the rest of his life – to compile extensive weather data, noting daily maximum and minimum temperatures, rainfall and wind direction. He reported that on May 26, 1771, “the greatest flood ever known in Virginia” took place. And later on Nov. 16, 1774, “this morning the Northern part of the Blue ridge is white with snow.”

gardening journals

Inspiration for Today
More than two hundred years later, Jefferson has inspired me to keep better garden records. I’m not nearly as disciplined as the former president. But just as he did, I’m trying to record what’s happening in my yard – particularly on a busy planting day.

These handwritten notes help me track plant varieties in my garden, and monitor how well they grew that year.  Plant tags that aren’t attached to pages are housed in plastic sleeves that I slide into a 3-ring binder.

1-1821

Another reason to keep records is to help with crop rotation. Both Jefferson and George Washington were big proponents of crop rotation to protect the quality of soil in their gardens. They rotated food crops, so the same edibles weren’t planted in the same places year after year. Above shows how Jefferson tracked where a particular food was planted that season, when it was planted, the day it arrived on the table and miscellaneous facts about its growth.

1-crop rotation 2

Here you can see how I listed edible varieties planted in a particular bed, and how well they grew. This allows me to later remember what I’ve harvested from past years, so I can ensure the same plant family isn’t grown in the same spot more than once every three or four years.

However, you decide to use your garden journal, don’t be afraid to record your disappointments, as well as your successes. Jefferson considered his garden his laboratory, and he often learned the most valuable lessons from his failures.
As Jefferson explained, “But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Some things to record in your garden journal:
•   Names of different plant varieties and how well they grew

•    Planting dates, locations and growing conditions for various varieties

•    Locations of edibles for crop rotation

•    Important milestones in garden, like the first cherry blossom in spring, or the details of a summer thunderstorm passing through.
Notes: For more about Monticello, visit:  http://www.monticello.org/.