Saturday, July 2, 2011

Four Revolutionary Gardeners for the Fourth of July

With the British fleet gathering at New York, George Washington took time from his command of the revolutionary army to write a letter home to his gardener, with instructions to plant a new garden containing only native plants. This bit of history was unearthed in a recently published book, The Founding Gardeners , by Andrea Wulf.  On NPR's Science Friday for July 1, Wulf discussed her book, which portrays Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison as farmers and gardeners in their personal lives who also held a larger vision of farming and gardening as a critical part of the American identity and as a necessary endeavor for the economic well-being and self-sufficiency of the young nation.

Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Jefferson's home Monticello, who also appeared on the Science Friday show, said that Jefferson was a staunch supporter of the local farmers' market and on his own estate grew over 300 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit, keeping careful records of both successes and failures.  Of course, as the radio guests acknowledged, the heaviest work was performed by slaves, but they claimed that these four Founding Fathers were involved with their farms and gardens in a hands-on way. Jefferson sowed seed; Madison described the patched up holes in his gardening trousers, indicating said Wulf, that he spent a fair amount of time down on his knees in the dirt. An early environmentalist, Madison warned Americans to be careful not to destroy the forests or deplete the soil.

Having often passed by the the Adams family homes while growing up in Quincy, MA, I was disappointed that more was not said about John Adams (who did not own slaves). Perhaps there is more in the book - we know from the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams that he was very involved in the details of family life and he relied on her to run the farm and household during his many absences for business and political purposes.

While in Europe for diplom atic purposes, Adams and Jefferson undertook a tour of British farms, which were well known and well regarded. Fearing that access would soon be curtailed due to the impending war of independence, their trip was intense and purposeful.  To their surprise, they found many plants that had been imported to England from America. A uniquely American contribution to garden design was the combination of useful and ornamental plants grown together in a common coordinated setting.
Listen to the Science Friday segment online: " Growing A Revolution: America’s Founding Gardeners"
The book is The Founding Gardeners , by Andrea Wulf (Knopf, 2011)
Check out the Monticello website for more information about Jefferson's gardens and the
Center for Historic Plants at Monticello which "collects, preserves, and distributes historic plant varieties" and sells seeds online for varieties that Jefferson favored.

D on't forget to fill out the Bountiful Brookline Survey
between now and July 15 at the link below.