The daffodils are nodding their pretty yellow heads all over town. To me, they are the harbingers of spring, blooming long before the weather is really warm. They give us hope the warm days really will return soon. In my yard, they pop up in the bed by my yard’s Victorian cast iron fence -- in the bed I meant to transform into a perennial cottage garden wonderland. Twenty-one years ago, when we moved in, I dug a vegetable plot in the back yard and the long border bed out front. Back then, when I was doing historic preservation consulting, I could squeeze in a little gardening time and actually harvest some vegetables and plant those daffodil bulbs. Then everything went into full-time fast forward. I meant to be an exemplary gardener like my grandmother Gladys who had more energy and talent than one person should be allowed. She grew vegetables in abundance and flowers galore -- and ran an impeccable and beautifully decorated home. I began to run museums and that was the end of intentional gardening in my life!
Of course, being intentional about gardening was not a choice for the generations before us -- it was a necessity. I am perusing a wonderful book right now entitled “‘A Rich Spot of Earth:’ Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello” by Monticello’s director of gardens and grounds, Peter Hatch. Hatch states, “Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello vegetable garden was a revolutionary American garden. Many of the summer vegetables we take for granted today -- tomatoes, okra, eggplant, lima beans, peanuts, peppers -- were slow to appear in North American gardens around 1800 … because of the American reliance on ‘the customary products of Europe:’ cool season vegetables.” He went on to say, “Jefferson’s garden was unique in showcasing a medley of vegetable species native to hot climates, from South and Central America to Africa to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.”
Jefferson’s garden terrace was built on the side of a hill over a three-year period. The growing plots measured 1,000 feet long and 50 feet wide. The orderly garden sections are now surrounded by grass walkways. The hillside below the garden contains a fruit orchard, as it did in Jefferson’s day. Jefferson kept a detailed “Kalendar” of what he planted each year and whether it had been a successful crop. Not all of it did succeed, but he kept experimenting through the years with what did grow well in this new country, America. Jefferson gardened at Monticello from 1769 until his death in 1826, according to his garden notes.
Jefferson’s gardening counterparts in our region of the country were no less diligent in discovering and cultivating successful crops for our southern climate. Jefferson is credited with shaping the mentality of Americans toward their land and the bounty received from it. “Southern Living’s” Oxmoor House author Shirley Abbott wrote, “Out of the head of this great and complex man sprang much of the American and certainly the Southern mentality, particularly the love of the land and of its produce, and the vision of the land as the source of all goodness and life.” In Camden, Phineas Thornton was certainly one of Jefferson’s disciples. Thornton not only carried a wide variety of garden seeds at his mercantile store, he also wrote a book devoted to the proper method of gardening, cooking and using homemade remedies for illness. His book, entitled “The Southern Gardener and Receipt Book,” was first published in 1840.
Thornton’s ad in the Camden newspaper related that his seeds were “… put up by the shaking Quakers … they may be depended upon to be good.” There we see listed seven types of cabbages, seven varieties of turnips, “swelling parsnips,” orange and purple carrots, three types of radish, and four varieties of lettuce. The next column in the ad lists several types each of onions, cucumbers, and melons, spinach, asparagus, eggplant and peppers. Five types of peas and several herbs round out the list. The only vegetable unfamiliar to us today is the “vegetable oyster.” This vegetable is properly named “salsify” and has largely gone out of use. It was very well used in Jefferson and Thornton’s day. It resembles a carrot and is seen in two forms -- white and black. Its nickname comes from its faint oyster-like taste. Salsify can be served steamed, sautéed or roasted.
This “snapshot” of what we were growing in Camden in the 19th century is augmented by the plantation journal of Stratford Plantation, near present-day Elgin. The journal was kept by George W. Barnes during 1862-63. The inventory of plantings in Barnes’ lists includes most everything included in Thornton’s seed offerings plus corn, okra, and several varieties of tomatoes. We would have been quite comfortable and well-fed at a Camden dinner table in the 19th century.
When we think of the contributions Thomas Jefferson made to our country, vegetables and fruit are not what first pops into our minds. But in reality, we can thank him for the abundant variety of produce which has become standard American fare over the past two hundred-plus years. He was, I believe, the consummate intentional gardener.