News Column

A farmer at heart: Thomas Jefferson Collection features third president's work

July 7, 2014

By Catherine W. Idzerda, The Janesville Gazette, Wis.

July 07--JANESVILLE -- Thomas Jefferson was an inventor, philosopher, writer, architect, linguist, botanist and one of this country's greatest statesmen.

But in a 1795 letter to a fellow diplomat, the nation's third president confessed his heart was drawn to another profession.

"I am entirely a farmer, soul and body, never scarcely admitting a sentiment on any other subject," Jefferson wrote.

This summer, Rotary Botanical Gardens is celebrating our founding gardening heritage with a Thomas Jefferson Collection.

The garden, which is located in a central area devoted to specialty displays, features 13 beds of vegetables, herbs and other plants Jefferson grew at Monticello, his Virginia home.

Janice Peterson, gardens staff member and horticulturalist, had the inspiration for the gardens after learning about Jefferson's devotion to agriculture.

"Even after he was president, he continued to list his occupation as farmer," Peterson said. "He saw gardening as a patriotic act. It was a way for our country to achieve independence."

Gardeners in colonial America stuck to what they knew, and for English settlers that meant root and cabbage crops. In contrast, Jefferson tried vegetables and herbs from all over the world, frequently bringing back plants or seeds from his travels.

He also charged the Lewis and Clark expedition to send back plants that would be useful or beautiful in eastern gardens.

Jefferson was a meticulous note taker, so not only do modern gardeners know what he planted but often what varieties, as well, Peterson said.

His "Garden Book," which he kept for 58 years, records his successes and his failures, as well as his experiments with techniques including crop rotation, use of garden supports and soil amendments, Peterson said.

Rotary's display features 105 plants from the "Garden Book," and each comes with a Jefferson-related garden fact. Visitors will learn about:

-- Red orach, the rare salad green that was one of Jefferson's favorites.

-- Rutabagas, the vegetable known as Swedish turnips. Jefferson is often credited with introducing the vegetable to the United States.

-- Scallop early white summer squash, which Jefferson referred to as "one of our finest and more innocent vegetables."

-- Brown Dutch lettuce. Jefferson recommended planting lettuce seeds every Monday for continuous harvest.

-- Arikara yellow beans and Mandan corn, two of the vegetables brought back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Both are named for the Native American tribes who grew them.

-- Fragrant heliotrope. When Jefferson was minister to France, he sent heliotrope seeds back home. He described them as, "A delicious flower ... the smell rewards the care."

-- Prince Albert garden peas. Jefferson grew more than 15 varieties of peas. Instead of creating a formal trellis for the crop to climb, Jefferson used a single tree branch placed upright in the ground. The peas vines climbed over the twigs coming off the main branch.


Thomas Jefferson's experiments in horticultural and his desire to bring in new plants from all over the world were part of his drive to experiment with new things, to find a better way.

In the garden, that's good.

In the statehouse, not so much--at least according to his contemporaries.

His portrait is in classrooms, his profile is on the nickel, and his face is on Mount Rushmore.

Thomas Jefferson reached mythic stature in American history, and while we are able to recognize his faults--he owned slaves--we aren't willing to acknowledge him as anything other than a great statesman.

And we would never consider his intellect anything other than first rate.

But for many of his contemporaries, Jefferson wasn't the right kind of smart, said David McKay, a historian who teaches at UW-Rock County and at other University of Wisconsin colleges.

"The debate was whether a modern philosopher could make a good leader," McKay said.

Modern is the key term.

A traditional philosopher studied history and literature, what we would now consider the liberal arts.

A modern philosopher was interested in engineering, science, invention and experimentation, McKay said. Jefferson was a modern philosopher, as was Benjamin Franklin.

But wouldn't innovation and invention be a good thing?

Consider how one journalist used Jefferson's invention of the swivel chair as an argument against his fitness for office "...the celebrated whirly-gig chair, which he invented purely to check the eddying motions of his watery brain by a counter turn for every occasion."


"When someone studies the past, they're looking for how things were done and why things were done," McKay said. "People who were more conservative tend to like things like that."

Modern philosophers were about "tinkering, asking, 'How can this be changed to be made better?'" he said.

"If you're a traditionalist, that can be very threatening," McKay said. "You're taking perceived wisdom of the past and throwing it aside."

In some sense, Jefferson won the battle with traditionalists.

"In the long run, that's where America is going to go," McKay said of Jefferson's spirit of invention.


(c)2014 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.)

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Source: Janesville Gazette (WI)

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