Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary credentials go far beyond Founding Father and authoring the Declaration of Independence; he also inspired a revolutionary cuisine according to Peter Hatch, who for 35 years was the Director of Gardens and Grounds for Monticello and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
“His garden was the Ellis Island of plants,” says Hatch, author of "The Gardens of Monticello and A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden at Monticello" (Yale University Press 2012; $35), noting that the third president of the United States grew 350 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit in his gardens. "He believed that plants could transform society.”
Hatch will be talking about Jefferson’s garden as well as his own part in the maintenance, interpretation, and restoration of the 2,400-acre landscape surround Monticello at Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve’s Annual Spring Garden Symposium held this year on Saturday March 23. Sponsored in part by Vite Greenhouses and Edible Michiana magazine, “Meet the Taste Makers” also features other participants like Bill Shores, garden manager for PBS TV Chef Rick Bayless, owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago, who will present Designing Edible and Ornamental Small Space Gardens and Krista Bailey, Assistant Director of Indiana University South Bend's Center for a Sustainable Future, talking about how food system operations impact sustainability strategies and outlining a vision of a just and sustainable food system.
Also presenting is Ellen Ecker Ogden, co-founder of The Cook's Garden seed and plant company for gourmet gardeners and author of four books including her latest The Complete Kitchen Garden (Stewart, Tabori & Chang 2011; $24.95). Her presentation focuses on planting visually pleasing and tasty edible gardens.
Hatch’s book, with its 200 plus full colored illustrations, shows us how Jefferson did indeed revolutionize what we eat.
“Most gardens in Virginia at that time were surprisingly bare during the height of summer,” he says. “That’s because American gardens before Jefferson were planted with the vegetables of Europe – cold weather vegetables such as cabbages and root vegetables.”
That doesn’t mean Jefferson didn’t like his cabbages, he grew around 35 varieties including Choux de Milan and Early York as well as such lettuces as Tennis Ball, Ice and his personal favorite, Brown Dutch.
“Jefferson was one of the first foodies,” says Hatch who is also an advisor for First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden. “He introduced many of the food traditions we take for granted now. He was also first in wine as well. He ate meat mainly as a condiment instead of the main part of the meal.”
A methodical, even obsessive record keeper, Jefferson kept a chart of the appearance and disappearance of each of the vegetables he grew each season.
“It is truly a remarkable document,” says Hatch. “He had embassies sending over seeds from other countries and Lewis and Clark brought back seeds from their journey as well. He was the model for the farm to table philosophy we embrace now.”
Back in the early 1980s, Ellen Ogden and her husband sat at their kitchen table developing a strategy to offer vegetable seeds that were outside of the mainstream. The result was The Cook's Garden, a seed catalogue brimming with such offerings as hard to find European seed varieties the couple imported from Switzerland, France, Italy and Holland. Their criteria centered on veggies with flavor.
"I’ve always liked growing vegetables more than flowers, I think it’s because I love to eat,” says Ogden. “It always surprises me when I visit someone who has spent a lot of time growing a beautiful perennial garden and then an unattractive vegetable garden sometimes stuck far away from the house.”
An artist, gardener and cook, Ogden decided to pull all this together in her book, The Complete Kitchen Garden, developing 15 themed kitchen gardens.
“There’s a lot of historic basis for a kitchen garden,” she says. “The very first kitchen garden goes back to the Paradise Garden in 1500 B.C. Persia. The idea of a kitchen garden is very European. I’ve been inspired by seeing the home gardens of Italy and France that grow smaller crops we use every day.”
Ogden will share her six steps on how to re-interpret growing vegetables during her program at Fernwood.
“Gardens are very important in allowing us to be observant, active participants in the natural world,” she says. “They nurture our spirits and feed us as well.”
The symposium includes lunch prepared by Fernwood’s chef Tim Carrigan.
The 105-acre Fernwood, located in Niles, Michigan, encompasses an arboretum, reconstructed prairie, natural areas and lovely gardens such as Early and Native, Railway, Japanese, water lilies, herb and sensory as well as such special ones as Emma Watson Garden, based on collection of lilacs started by Emma Watson back in the 1930s for her home garden near Fernwood.
“The symposium is part of Fernwood’s Year of Taste,” says Steve Bornell, Fernwood’s Manager of Collections and Grounds, noting that the botanical garden is doing edible seasonal plantings using vegetables such as kale and parsley like typical annual flower plantings.