It's been a while since I've written about the White House Kitchen Garden, the first lady's South Lawn food project that got the attention of everyone from Alice Waters to agribusiness last spring. But as I watched a short video about the garden today (linked to below), something caught my attention: a special Thomas Jefferson plot!
It turns out that the White House worked with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to secure heritage plants and seeds from Jefferson's home at Monticello. The Jefferson section of the South Lawn garden (appropriately located near the pea beds, the former president's favorite vegetable) includes brown Dutch and tennis-ball lettuce, choux de Milan Savoy cabbage, pricklyseeded spinach and a Marseilles fig, planted with mint in a raised bed. Sam Kass, the White House assistant chef and the garden's coordinator, also worked with Monticello's director of gardens and grounds, Peter Hatch, to glean some Jeffersonian inspiration.
Jefferson had Monticello's garden carved and terraced from a hillside through slave labor in order to extend the growing season of the Virginia Piedmont. The garden's 2 acres are divided into neat, square beds; even in the late summer when I visited the home, they still looked compact and clean, unlike your typical blowsy August garden.
When Jefferson was home, he wrote minutely detailed journals regarding everything from plant spacing to failures. (According to Monticello, his 1809 yellow squash "came to nothing," much like my zucchini in 2009.) He also sent for imported plants, testing out the cultivation of broccoli from Italy, Mexican peppers or beans from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Like a proto-Mendel, he genetically selected his peas to create superior strains.
But while you'd never know it from the well-kept garden of today, Monticello's vegetable patch was long neglected. Its recreation didn't begin until 1979, with two years of archaeological excavations to uncover old beds and the garden's massive stone retaining wall. Today, Monticello mixes modern gardening conveniences like natural pesticides and rototillers with Jeffersonian techniques.
Fortunately, you don't have to be the first lady to secure some heritage seeds from Monticello. Seeds and plants collected from the garden are available through Monticello.org. Since I come from a family that picked up a stray, abandoned iris bulb from Faulkner's Rowan Oak and then desperately tried to cultivate it (no dice), I might just be the type to go for such celebrity seeds. Personally, I like the sound of "Monticello's 'Vines of Summer' Sampler."