April 29th, 2008
Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books

“…have you become a farmer? is it not pleasanter than to be shut up within 4 walls and delving eternally with the pen? I am become the most ardent farmer in the states…I rarely look into a book, and more rarely take up pen. I have proscribed newspapers, not taking a single one nor scarcely ever looking into one. my next reformation will be to allow neither pen, ink, nor paper to be kept on the farm. when I have accomplished this I shall be in a fair way of indemnifying myself for the drudgery in which I have passed my life. if you are half as much delighted with the farm as I am, you bless your stars at your riddance from public cares.” — Thomas Jefferson to General Henry Knox, June 1, 1795

Robin Chotzinoff flattered me in her story on garden blogging, comparing my compulsion for note-taking and record-keeping to Thomas Jefferson’s. I mentioned he was one of my garden heroes and inspirations. I wish I were even half as thorough in my records as he.

Thomas Jefferson Garden and Farm Books

Luckily for us, he did not ever fulfill his resolution to entirely abolish pen and paper from his farm. Quite the contrary. He wrote in his garden and farm books whenever he was at home. I’m betting that if Thomas Jefferson were alive today he would be a garden blogger. He was curious about everything, passionate about gardening, and loved sharing what he knew and learning from others.

New varieties of plants thrilled him; his garden motto seems to be “Discovery”. The Americas were, after all, a whole new world of plants. Before sending Meriwether Lewis on the famous expedition he sent him to Philadelphia for nine months to study botany. In contrast to our century, where we keep lists of plants that have gone extinct under our stewardship, Jefferson was adding plants through discovery or hybridization. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” writes our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Using the technology of his time, he wrote a copious number letters swapping knowledge and always begging seeds, bulbs and plants to try. “Your favor of the 7th came duly to hand and the plant you are so good as to propose to send me will be thankfully recd. The little Mimosa Julibrisin you were so kind to send me last year is flourishing.” he writes William Hamilton from Washington in 1806. In this same letter he lays out his plans for farm improvements when his term as president is over. “…my views and attentions are all turned homewards.” he prefaces several long paragraphs on his plans for farms when he gets home, concluding with, “…the subject runs away with me whenever I get on it.”

He is aware of the social obligation of his written connections. Correspondence, like blogging, establishes a relationship, one that must be kept up by both writer and reader. “In matters of correspondence as well as money, you must never be in debt.”

Doesn’t it humanize these great historical figures to know that in 1796 Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington saying, “I put away this disgusting dish of old fragments & talk to you of my peas & clover.” He then goes on in great detail talking about how many tons per acre of wheat he has grown, how tall the stalks are, how his older fields are exhausted, his plans for crop rotation, and how he’s built a Scotch threshing machine from a model someone sent him. He modified the plan to more easily move it from field to field.

In his travels to Europe, Jefferson is fascinated by farm methods and plant choices. He stops to ask a man why he is gathering ferns in the forest. When he hears the reply (he uses dry ferns to pack apples for market, as they don’t give off a scent as hay does), Jefferson can hardly wait to get home to try it himself. Americans have just recently gotten on the olive oil bandwagon, but Jefferson was promoting the olive in 1787.

“The Olive tree is the least known in America, and yet the most worthy of being known. Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if it be not the most precious. Perhaps it may claim a preference even to bread; because there is such an infinitude of vegetables which it renders a proper and comfortable nourishment. In passing the Alps at the Col de Tende, where they are mere masses of rock, wherever there happens to be a little soil, there are a number of olive trees and a village supported by them. Take away these trees and the same ground in corn would not support a single family.”

Thomas Jefferson kept a garden book, primarily a calendar, from 1766 to 1824. Over the years his garden book became more detailed and exacting: records on the weather, on what he planted, on when he harvested, drawings laying out the garden beds. He noted the migration of birds and the dates of first flowers. Some of his notes read like tweets.

1811 Mar 16. planted 5. Tuckahoe grey cherries in the rows e-1-2-+1.4.5 from Enniscorthy
1811 Mar 18. planted Asparagus seed in beds 5.6.7. & replanted 3.4
1811 Apr 13. Quarantine corn from Thouin in the old Nursery.
1811 May 16. strawberries come to table.
1821 May 28. artichokes come to table. The last dish is July 28.

Jefferson had one of those minds that is never satisfied, a mind that is never still but constantly reaching for a more efficient way to do things. His farm books are filled with ideas and advice that he’s collected over the years and organized by topic as well as detailed farm management records. He records the progress on grading roads, writing down the number of people working and how much road they make each day and figuring the yards per day per hand progress. (Much slower going in the woods and uphill.)

And he is not content to read about an idea. He experiments, observes and records. Is it more efficient to use candles or oil lamps, he wonders and sets an experiment burning both a lamp and candles for 16 1/2 hours to see how much fuel is used.

…it appears that 1. gallon of oil will burn 402. hours, and that it requires 10 3/5 lb of candle to burn the same time so supposing oil to be .75 per gallon, it will be equal to mould candles at 7. cents per lb which shews the advantage of oil.

In 1793, when Eli Whitney writes to Jefferson about his little invention, the cotton gin, Jefferson immediately wants to know how he can employ it on his farm.

“…I feel considerable interest in the success of your invention for family use. Permit me therefore to ask information from you on these points. Has the machine been thoroughly tried in the ginning of cotton or is it as yet but a machine of theory? What quantity of cotton has it cleaned on an average of several days, & worked by hand, & by how many hands? What will be the cost of one of them made to be worked by hand?”

I love that phrase, “as yet but a machine of theory.” Apparently they had problems with vaporware even in Jefferson’s day.

One of my favorite letters is to Jacob Bigelow in 1818. Here Jefferson summarizes seven years of his observations that characterize the climate of Virginia. He includes average temperature and rainfall for each month, date of first frost (Oct 7-26), when the peach trees blossom (Mar 9-Apr 4), when the house martins appear, and the ticks! (both mid-Mar), when the lilacs bloom (Apr 1-28) and the fireflies appear (May 8). He also records that it is necessary to have fires at all times for four months in winter, and in the mornings and evening for another month before and after.

Do I know how many days of the year I run my heater, all day long versus only at night? How about the AC? How many nights did we have a hard freeze this last winter? Was that typical or less than average? Have I tried different fertilizers on my tomatoes to compare them and see which is the most efficient? How about different methods for tying and staking tomatoes? Is there a good reason that Austinites shouldn’t set out tomatoes before March 15th? What if they are in protected site? What if we use row covers?

How much advice do we take on faith without testing it ourselves? And how rigorous are our tests? Do we just follow advice without also growing a control to use as a comparison? Do we write down our observations and then compare our notes over several years and with others? How much practical and useful information are we collecting and sharing? How much of what we’ve learned through experience will be lost if we don’t pool our knowledge? Jefferson is an inspiration for seeking continual/continuous improvement.

Time to update my In Bloom Calendar for April.

by M Sinclair Stevens

15 Responses to post “Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books”

  1. From Gail:

    This has been a great read. What a fascinating man and wouldn’t I love to be at a dinner party sitting next to him. Your last paragraph has me thinking; I don’t write my observations down, they are stored in a folder in my memory…maybe blogging will help me move toward keeping a written record.

    Perhaps because I’ve never been able to rely on memory I’ve always been a compulsive scribbler. If I don’t write it down, it’s as if it didn’t happen. I think this is why I’ve taken to Twitter. Twitter is a great repository of notes, while the blog is more focused on analyzing and mulling over those notes. — mss

  2. From Frances (Tennessee):

    Hi MSS, I agree with Gail, this was really enjoyable. You did a thorough job of helping us get to know the gardener side of TJ. Now I need to go look for some olive trees to plant!

    Frances at Faire Garden

    Olive trees are just at their range of cold hardiness here in Austin. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t catch on the the states of Jefferson’s time: too cold and too wet on the eastern seaboard. — mss

  3. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    Wonderful post. That setttles it, I need to buy Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books. And I need to observe more in my garden and keep better records.

    You make me wish I had set up an Amazon.com store to get some kick-back from the click-throughs. On the other hand, if I had an Amazon.com store, would it taint my review? — mss

  4. From Layanee:

    Do you think life was less complicated then? Maybe not when you consider facing war, starvation and lack of refrigeration. Preparation was the key to success. Love the Jefferson.

    I absolutely do not think life was less complicated then. We take everything for granted. Flip a switch, the lights come on. Turn a faucet, potable water comes out. Whenever something disrupts the system (mortgage crisis, surge in gas prices), we panic, feel victimized and helpless. Jefferson kept good notes because he had to know how much corn he needed to grow to feed the livestock that fed the laborers that built the roads that carried the wood that heated the house for four months straight. Jefferson did not sit around grumbling or waiting for others (mortal or divine) to solve the difficulties he faced. He seemed to approach everything he did with the question, “How can I make this better.” — mss

  5. From Kim:

    Wow… you’re right. Those little notes are like tweets.

    Maybe I can do a better job of keeping records than I think. I tend to want to do grandiose, long, detailed journal postings, and that gets burdonsome and thus dropped eventually. Maybe brevity is the key to successful journaling.

    Many thoughts you’ve sent swirling today, MSS… thank you…

    Thank you! That’s the greatest compliment you can give me…that something I said made the thoughts start swirling. — mss

  6. From Jim/ArtofGardening.org:

    This was a great read. I enjoy reading gardenhistorygirl and this is right up her alley. After reading this, I too think TJ would have been a garden blogger!

    Thanks for leaving a comment and turning me on to gardenhistorygirl. Now I’ve got two more interesting blogs to delve into. — mss

  7. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    Lots of new propagating at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and this was a timely reminder to get my database built before there’s too many plants…thanks!

    Jefferson was quite an extraordinary person.

    So he was. I didn’t know you worked at the Botanic Garden. What’s a good time of year to visit it? — mss

  8. From deb:

    Great post. I think I will get that book.

    The book consists of notes and letters so it’s easy to dip into it here and there and dig out a fascinating tidbit. It doesn’t have much of a narrative. I find myself wishing it were footnoted because there is so much of the terminology or ramifications that I don’t understand. — mss

  9. From linda:

    Fascinating post about a fascinating man, MSS.

    Thanks. — mss

  10. From kate:

    I almost forgot to come back and leave a comment, after wandering off to read about continuous v. continual improvement. Hmmm… food for thought.

    Jefferson was a fascinating person and how fortunate it is that he recorded his observations. It requires a certain amount of discipline to faithfully record although we have more tools at your disposal to do so.

    It was good to read that you had rain. I liked reading your ‘notes to self’.

    I find I have too many tools at my disposal. I’m constantly trying new systems and then going back to old systems and struggling to keep them in sync. I wish I had one system where I could write down everything I wanted to remember. — mss

  11. From Jan Always Growing:

    Thomas Jefferson has always been one of my favorite historical people. I knew he was an enthusiastic gardener, but I have never read any of his writings. This has been a very interesting post.

    Rereading Jefferson’s journals has made me want to visit Monticello. — mss

  12. From entangled:

    I recently learned that Jefferson compiled, while serving as president, a chart of vegetables available in the Washington Markets, noting the first and last dates of availability. He truly had an amazing dedication to recordkeeping.

    Have you seen the online images of his handwritten Farm and Garden Books?

    Thanks for a link to the online images. I was going to scan a couple of them from the book but got lazy. And here someone else has gone to the trouble. — mss

  13. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    MSS–I just started a couple months ago…saw the job opening and applied for the heck of it and got the job. I’ll be eventually in charge of a new native plant initiative there, which should be interesting! I’ll be looking to the LBJ Wildflower Center as a mentor…

    Best time to visit is probably spring but anytime of year there are interesting places and plants in the garden. Come on up!

  14. From Pam:

    This definitely takes me back – after my second year in college, I was a tour guide at Monticello (I grew up in Charlottesville), and was given the luxury of spending the first week of the summer solely reading abot Jefferson. Of course my tours learned towards the agronomic issues, and I got as many of these into my tour as I could. When I went back to school in the fall, and took a horticulture class, I ended up doing a project on the plants that Jefferson introduced into this country. I took photos of the trees, shrubs, etc – and then wrote about their history. It was a fun project. I do firmly believe that Jefferson’s heart was in the garden, outdoors – in the land, and we were just lucky that he got into ‘politics’. He was remarkably experimental in his approach to his gardens — and was, if anything, a scientist at heart. I’ve got his garden book, and you are right! His notes are like tweets (which I’ve yet to be a big fan of – but after you making this connection, I might have to rethink them).

    Such a nice post, thank you.

  15. From Sue Armstrong Thompson:

    Hello all gardners! I need information concerning how to stake tomato plants as would have been accomplished in the early 1800s. At The Lotz House Civil War Museum in Franklin, Tennessee, a dear friend gave us a gift of planting tomatoes,peppers, and herbs in a very wee garden spot. Now the tomato plants are beginning to thrive and grow. We need to keep our small garden pure to the period and they must be staked. I am searching knowledge. Thank you in advance for your kind help. Blessings. Sue Armstrong Thompson