Growing A Revolution: America's Founding Gardeners

The founding fathers won a war, established a government and birthed a nation. And through it all, they never forgot to water the plants. Monticello garden director Peter Hatch and historian Andrea Wulf discuss how Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison helped create the uniquely American garden.

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IRA FLATOW, host: When you think of the Founding Fathers, where do you see them? Waging war at Lexington, Concord, Brooklyn; maybe gathered around the table, signing the "Declaration of Independence." Or how about seeding rose in their gardens? Have you ever imagine Jefferson stooped over a tomato plant? Well, it turns out that the first four presidents were avid gardeners. Their estates were home to huge plots of fruits, vegetables and ornamentals. Some of them experimented with exotic crops like African okra, sesame, and others insisted on cultivating America's native plants.

And while the farmers of the Constitution garden for many of the same reasons that we do today - to relax in the outdoors, to have some fresh food ready at hand, or for the simple pleasure of working the soil - their gardens were more than that. They were the first truly American gardens inspired by European designs, but infused with a rugged, independent nature that made them sort of a political statement as well. Yankee ingenuity.

What was so American about their gardens? And what gardening tips might we take from these revolutionary green thumbs? That's what we're going to be talking about. If you'd like to talk about it too, our number: 1-800-989-8255. Also tweet us: @scifri, or go to conversation going there on our Facebook page: /scifri.

Peter Hatch is the director of gardens and grounds at Monticello. He joins us from the studios of Virginia Public Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Peter.

PETER HATCH: Yeah, good afternoon, Ira.

FLATOW: Good afternoon. Andrea Wulf is a historian and author of "The Founding Gardeners." She joins us by phone from Germany. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANDREA WULF: Hello.

FLATOW: Peter, there's so much we don't know about what was going on in Monticello, with Jefferson as a gardener?

HATCH: Well, it's too bad 'cause it's a fascinating story. It reflects as much who Thomas Jefferson was as, in some ways, the writing of the "Declaration of Independence." It's a great, great story.

FLATOW: Did he actually putter in the garden himself or did he have his slaves and other people do that for him?

HATCH: Yeah, Jefferson was a gentleman gardener. He'd sow seeds in the garden. And one of his slaves, Isaac, years after Jefferson died, recalled how Jefferson would work at a white hot pace in a coolly evening, sowing seeds in the - in his kitchen garden at Monticello.

FLATOW: Was he a good gardener, have a green thumb? Or did he wreck stuff when he tried it himself?

HATCH: Well, you might say that few gardeners failed as often as Thomas Jefferson, or at least wrote down his failures as unrelentingly as he did. He kept a garden journal called "The Garden Book." And you can hear - see the word fail time and time again. But Jefferson was an experimenter. He documented the planting of some 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit. And he wrote that in gardening, the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another. And he said that if he could successfully grow something, some new crop one time out of 100, he'd consider himself a successful horticulturist.

FLATOW: Interesting. Andrea Wulf, your book, "The Founding Gardeners," talks about how not just Jefferson gardened, but you had Washington and Adams and Madison. Tell us about some of them.

WULF: Well, so I'm talking about Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Adams as really - kind of as farmers and as gardeners. And what I'm saying is that we have to look at them as farmers and as gardeners, not just as politicians to understand the making of America. So my argument is basically that their passion for nature, plants, gardens, and agriculture is deeply woven into the fabric of America, and very much aligned with their political thought. So they are, I mean, it kind of works on several levels.

So you have the very obvious level is really the economic importance of agricultural crops, which was important for them in terms of that the country became self-sufficient and independent, but it also worked on an ideological level, which is very much Jefferson's idea of America as an agrarian republic. It also works in terms of national identity because they all understood the importance of nature, really, for America's national identity because nature became invested with patriotic meaning. And then it works, and I think that's very important, kind of literally and symbolically, in their gardens, which they used as a canvass to paint or, you know, maybe we should say to grow a political statement.

FLATOW: Did they avoid using British plants and try to cultivate American - native American plants?

WULF: Well, there's wonderful story, I think, which is - happens in the summer of 1776, when America has just declared independence. And George Washington is the commander in chief of the army. And he is New York, and New York is facing the British army, so there are 30,000 British troops about to arrive in New York. And Washington has about half the manpower, and none of his officers have ever seen these kind of imposing warships which come sailing towards New York.

And he sits down a few evenings before the Battle of New York and writes a letter to his estate manager in Mount Vernon, asking him to design a new garden. So you have this kind of situation where the city is kind of facing the first and largest battle of the War of Independence. And Washington sits down and asks for a new garden.

And what is even more remarkable than the timing is that he's only asking for native species. So he's creating or he wants his estate manager to kind of plant a garden that is entirely made of native species. So it's almost like, at that moment when America is kind of facing the almighty British army, he doesn't want a single English tree to have their claw in the roots of Mount Vernon. So he's very - I think it's very much his kind of horticultural Declaration of Independence, if you like, so...

FLATOW: Yeah. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Andrea Wulf and Peter Hatch. They've written some very - they're - they've written some really interesting stuff about Washington. Andrea Wulf is author of the "Founding Gardeners," talking about not just George Washington, but all the Founding Fathers and their use of their gardens, not just to grow veggies but to make political statements. Peter Hatch is director of Gardens and Grounds in Monticello.

And if you're in Virginia and you want to take a great trip down to Monticello and see the gardens there, they're terrific. Maybe the holiday weekend is a good time to do that. We'll take a break. We'll be right back and talk more about Founding Fathers and their gardening habits. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking about gardening in Revolutionary War times with my guests, Andrea Wulf, a historian and author of the "Founding Gardeners," Peter Hatch, director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

Peter, do the gardens there look about the same as they did? Did you keep them the way Jefferson had them?

HATCH: Yeah, the gardens, the flower gardens and the grove and the fruit and vegetable garden at Monticello have been really restored with uncommon accuracy. We actually used years of archaeological research to put back the bones of these gardens. And Jefferson wrote so much in his garden book about planting and where the gardens were and the structure, that we've been able to put them back pretty faithfully to their existence during Jefferson's lifetime.

FLATOW: What kind of veggies did he grow?

HATCH: Well, they said he grew some 330 different varieties of vegetables.

FLATOW: No kidding.

HATCH: He was a real - probably grew more vegetables perhaps than any man had ever grown before in one place - some 89 different species, some 330 different varieties, from sesame to tomatoes, from okra to sesame. It's just a great variety of things, particularly a lot of hot season vegetables, which were unusual in Virginia gardens around 1800.

FLATOW: What kind of gardening practices did he do that we wouldn't be doing today?

HATCH: That we wouldn't be doing today? Yeah, he did some - he did things - he sometimes planted things in the same place...

FLATOW: Right.

HATCH: ...although being a great believer in rotating crops. So he used a lot of manure in his garden, which I think good gardeners still do today. He believed that healthy plants growing and strong soil will bid defiance to pests and diseases and droughts, really the banner of the organic gardening movement, but reflecting a belief in sort of this holistic balance of wild nature on the one hand and the cultivated garden on the other.

FLATOW: Andrea Wulf, British gardens are so well-kept. Was that tradition still kept by our Founding Fathers, or did they want to make their own statement about what their gardens wanted to look like?

WULF: I think that they took some inspiration from the English garden, which is quite interesting to actually look at because Jefferson and John Adams went, in 1786, on a garden tour through England. And what they really discovered there is that the English garden was, in fact, kind of densely populated with American trees and shrubs, which had been imported over five decades by an American gardener called John Bartram(ph). So when they walked through the English garden, they realized that the English garden is kind of American. So it was relatively easy to do this in America without feeling unpatriotic. So that's the one thing.

And the other thing, I think, what is kind of uniquely American, really, is that they brought together the kind of - the useful and the beautiful. So they created gardens that combined, say, agricultural fields, vegetable plots, with shrubberies and growth. And I think this is - this combination is very American. And there are some - you know, other examples.

For example, James Madison built a temple in his garden in Montpelier, which you could argue is, you know, purely ornamental. But what he did is he put an icehouse underneath it. So he kind of gave it that kind of, you know, usefulness in the garden. And Washington, for example, built outside toilets in his garden, and he puts them in the shrubbery at the end of a kind of meandering path. And in the English garden, you would normally find a statue or a temple there. And he built them as little temples, but there were, you know, after all, an outside toilet. So it's this combination, I think, which is very different in the American garden to the English garden.

FLATOW: I would call it Yankee ingenuity in the early day. Why waste a good space with just a statue?

WULF: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Tyler(ph) in Salem, Morgan. Hi, Tyler.

TYLER: Ira, it's a pleasure to talk to you. I was curious if Angela(ph) and Peter could clarify something for me, and that was I heard that the Founding Fathers also grew hemp in their gardens and the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.

FLATOW: Hmm. Anybody...

TYLER: I'll take my question - answer off the air.

HATCH: Yeah, Jefferson certainly grew hemp for cloth, but I don't think Thomas Jefferson was smoking marijuana in Monticello, despite what we - a lot of people would like to believe. I'm not sure about the Declaration of Independence being written on hemp paper. But certainly hemp was a - not an important, but it was a - kind of a subsidiary economic crop at the time.

WULF: Well, it was relatively common. And Washington definitely grows it. Adams grows it. I'm not quite sure about Madison, but I think they're all growing it for cloth, not to smoke it.

FLATOW: Well, it was grown in this country all over the place until World War II. It was a huge crop, if I'm not mistaken. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Gary in Washington. Hi, Gary.

GARY: Hi. How you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

GARY: You briefly mentioned slaves and their contributions, but it was very brief. I don't really think Washington or Madison or even Jefferson spent a great deal of time out in the garden with a shovel and a hoe and building these elaborate gardens and structures. It was obviously the slaves who did the labor. So what are their contributions?

HATCH: Yeah. In Monticello, there was a - the head gardener was a man named Wormley Hughes, an enslaved African-American who sort of a beloved figure in - among the African-American community. But Jefferson did actually sow the seeds himself in the garden. His garden book is amazing for the details. And one of his friends who came to Monticello described a seed rack that was carried from planting site to planting site.

And from that, Jefferson, with his own hands, would actually sow the seeds. He was a fairly handy guy in the sense that he would make locks and keys and work in the blacksmith shop. But still the slaves were...

GARY: Can you tell more about Washington and Madison?

WULF: So Washington, for example, I mean, you know, I think we have to be very clear. I mean, the kind of - the backbreaking labor was obviously done by the slaves. But all of them are very practical hands-on gardeners. We just, you know, don't hear about it that much because they have been, you know, portrayed as these kind of demigods of the revolution who, you know, who are more politicians than farmers.

But Washington, for example, always surprised visitors for, you know, and there are a lot of visitors accounts who actually, you know, describe how he's working next to his man, how he kind of, like, throws off his coat when he gets hot, how he comes in with muck-splattered boots, how he's actually there, you know, digging in the ground. So that's very much kind of described. So he's out there working in the garden. All of them are outside most of the day when they're on their plantations.

Madison, for example, has a pair of gardening trousers, which are described as so worn that he has patches on the knees. So he must have been out there in the garden doing some weeding. Otherwise, you don't have holes on the knees. So I think they're all out there but, obviously, at the same time, the slaves are doing kind of the backbreaking work.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Gary. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I found it interesting that you mentioned, Andrea, that right - I guess you said it - was at 1786 that they took a trip over to Great Britain and look at the gardens? Right after the war was over.

WULF: Yes. So what happened is actually that Jefferson is the American minister in Paris and Adams is the American minister in London. And Adams had some problems with the trade negotiation with the British because the British, quite frankly, don't want to help their former colony. So he's writing in spring 1786. He's writing to Jefferson, saying, look, come over to London and, you know, give me a hand, basically.

And they had no luck. The British, you know, hate the Americans. And Jefferson, in fact, thinks they're so rude that he says - that he speculates that it's the amount of meat consumed by the British that makes their character so insusceptible to civilization, as he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WULF: So what do they do? I mean, what would you do in a situation like this? They go off on a garden tour.

FLATOW: Right.

WULF: And it's not, you know, this is not a leisurely trip. They're, I mean, they are traveling every day, 40 to 50 miles, and they see several gardens a day. So they're literally taking off as many gardens as possible because both of them don't know if they're going to see them again. So, again, they want to see what they have read about because the English garden, at that point, is the most famous kind of - type of gardening in the Western world. So they want to see as much as possible.

And Jefferson is actually taking lots of notes, which - he's kind of questioning the gardeners. He wants to find out how many, you know, workmen are needed to create gardens, such as, like Blenheim or Stowe or something like that. So he's clearly thinking about recreating some of it in Monticello and trying to find out, you know, how much it would cost him.

FLATOW: Did Ben Franklin have any interest? He was so busy with so many things. Did he have time to do any gardening or known for any of it?

WULF: Well, Benjamin Franklin, as always, has his fingers in the pie unsurprisingly. I mean, he's actually the first of the revolutionaries who puts plants really at the struggle of the country. And he's - when he's in London during the 1760s and early 1770s, in the kind of run-up to the Declaration of Independence, he very quickly understands the importance of useful crops and seeds. And he, you know, he's always been part of this kind of network of farmers and gardeners. He's always been kind of exchanging seeds beforehand.

But the more he thinks that declaring independence is inevitable, the more frantically he starts sending seeds over from London to America because he's very much aware of the importance of the country having to be self-sufficient. But he also has - in Philadelphia, he has a couple of fields just to the north of the city where he's also planting new types of crops and experimenting with it. He's experimenting with manure. So he's, I mean, he's not as much a gardener as you would say the other four are, but he is very much kind of part of this thinking and network.

FLATOW: Peter, are there any sort of heirloom seeds still available from Jefferson's garden?

HATCH: You know, we have a collection of vegetables at Monticello, as well as flowers, that we grow as sort of a seed bank of not only Jefferson varieties but varieties that were around in the early 1800s, from tennis ball lettuce to red calico butterbean. So we have a nice collection of things that we try to preserve year in and year out by saving the seeds every year.

FLATOW: Yeah. We don't think much about how valuable all these seeds are.

HATCH: Yeah. I think that, you know, they're even growing in Michelle Obama's White House kitchen garden. There's a special section there devoted to Thomas Jefferson...

FLATOW: Is she...

HATCH: ...and the legacy of - go ahead.

FLATOW: Is she the first lady since, you know, victory gardens, to actually talk about, you know, the importance of gardening that you can recall?

HATCH: I think other first ladies may have been brought that up, but no first lady has said like Michelle Obama that it was among the most important thing she's ever done in her life. So I think she's certainly been an advocate for gardening. And it's nice to have that Jefferson legacy promoted there.

FLATOW: Andrea, are there any other first ladies that you can think of in...

WULF: I - no, I can't think of any.

FLATOW: Yeah. What - so what is the takeaway? What should we take - as we approach our own Independence Day this weekend, what would be the legacy of gardening nearly - of our Founding Fathers gardening in America?

HATCH: I think Jefferson looked at plants as sort of a vehicle for social change. And I think he set a real model for the things that we're talking so much about today in terms of sustainable farming and seed saving and organic gardening and local food. When he was president, he kept a chart of 37 different vegetables as they appeared in the farmers' market and when they first came and when they first disappeared from that market. And he was a great supporter of that market. So Jefferson could be looked upon, (unintelligible) being first in food and first in gardening and first in wine. And his legacy, I think, is really quite profound for the things that people are interested in today.

WULF: Yeah. And I think - I totally agree with Peter, and I - well, I would add to that if maybe the - James Madison, really, is this, I mean, that - for me that has been the most surprising thing when I was writing this book, is that James Madison really is the forgotten father of American environmentalism. So that's, you know, a real legacy, which, you know, should be maybe a little bit more applied in America today, because he was - in 1818, he gave a speech that was really remarkable for that time because he was trying to convince the Americans that if they wanted America to survive as a nation, they would have to stop destroying the forests and stop depleting the soil in Virginia.

And he said something, which I think is really remarkable. He said that man had to return to nature what man took from nature. So he's talking about the balance of nature. He's talking about nature as a very fragile ecological system that could be easily destroyed.

FLATOW: We're talking about Founding Fathers this hour in SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. And talking about - I think that's interesting - even back then, you know? It's got to be so politically polarized now. Back then, the Founding Fathers all agreed on it.

HATCH: When Jefferson was...

WULF: Yes. I think, in fact, that nature and gardening and agriculture was - at a time when they, you know, when the Founding Fathers started to become more partisan and their hardening of their political lines became more obvious, these topics: Agriculture, nature, gardening was, you know, still very much the one subject they all agreed upon.

FLATOW: Peter, you agree?

HATCH: Yeah. I think, certainly. Even Jefferson, you know, has been called - he's been called the father of a lot of things. He's been called the father of American weather observers, and his interest in meteorology was in large part based in his belief that the weather was changing and it might the responsible parties may have been American farmers clearing the land. So he looked at weather also in, kind of, terms that the modern people can relate to very well.

FLATOW: Penelope in Little Rock, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PENELOPE: Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

PENELOPE: How can we order some Founding Father vegetable seeds from Monticello?

HATCH: We have a website, and you can order these seeds over the Internet at www.monticello.org. And flowers and vegetables we have for sale throughout the year. And we feel the best way to sort of share these things is by distributing them to as many people as possible. And we have a small cottage industry in which we collect seeds from the gardens.

FLATOW: All right. Penelope, good luck in your gardening. We lost Penelope. She took - she was writing down that website. What's the website again? One more time for us.

HATCH: It's www.monticello.org.

FLATOW: And we'll have that upon our website if - well, before the hour is out and people can get up here to look at it. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today because I - we talk a lot about the American Revolution, we talk lot about over the battles that go on, but we never really talk very much about the united environmentalism and the gardening efforts that were essential, obviously, from the way you've written and all talked about it that our Founding Fathers had in common. So I want to wish you all a great holiday weekend, even you over there across the pond, Andrea.

WULF: I won't have the Monday off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WULF: But I will be raising a glass to Jefferson.

FLATOW: Thank you very much for taking time to be with us. Have a good weekend. Andrea Wulf is...

WULF: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...a historian and author of "The Founding Gardeners," a great book. It's on our reading list, "The Founding Gardeners" you want to know about this holiday weekend, some good reading. Peter Hatch, thank you also.

HATCH: We're looking forward to our naturalization ceremony on July 4th with 77 citizens will be naturalized. It's a big event at Monticello, and a real testament to Jefferson's authoring of the Declaration of Independence.

FLATOW: Well, we'll send everybody...

HATCH: Hope people will join us.

FLATOW: Well, you'll get a crowd now. Thanks for taking time to be with us. Good holiday weekend to you.

HATCH: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

WULF: Bye.

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