Typical 17th century gardens in the New World began as a very useful part of a homestead. Many were surround by fences and hedges to keep out livestock that roamed about freely. These early gardens were filled with practical herbs, fruit trees, and plants that were used for medicinal purposes and general cooking. These initial gardens were used to provide for families and prove to themselves and others that they could tame the wilderness of the New World.
Within a few decades these New World gardens went beyond the basics and began to host unique plants from far away. In 1642, a garden in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) contained tulips. This seemed an ordinary item to include in a garden; however, tulip mania had only hit Holland in the 1630s, and since New Amsterdam was at the entrance to the Hudson River, the colonists had easy access to these botanical treasures. By the 1660s, gardens in New Amsterdam contained parterres, which were borders made of low hedges, flowers, and herbs, used to divide up the gardens and add a bit of refinement to their overall appearance (Graham).
During these early colonial days, plants were status symbols. They became living treasures, having been shipped between continents among the continual stream of overseas explorations and colonization expeditions. Profits could be had by “swashbuckling botanist-adventurers” who sailed with instructions from kings and queens to return with the “most wonderful and lucrative species from the corners of the world” (Graham). Part of the reason for the excitement surrounding the flora resulted from Carl Linnaeus’ publication of Systema Naturae in 1735, which introduced the idea of identifying and classifying every plant with a two-part scientific name.
Thomas Jefferson is a name that is synonymous with gardening. He was not only one of the Founding Fathers of the United States but was also a successful gardener at his home at Monticello. He began to actively garden in 1757, when he was only fourteen years old. This was the year his father, Peter Jefferson, died and left young Thomas with approximately 5,000 acres to manage.
In a letter to Charles Wilson Peale, Thomas Jefferson stated, “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden” (Lipscomb and Bergh, 78-80).
Jefferson’s desire to cultivate the land was realized because of his continual planning and hard work. Beginning at the age of twenty-three, and up until two years before he died, Jefferson recorded nearly daily entries into his Garden Book recording the goings-on of his many plants at Monticello. This record contained meticulous notations of everything that Jefferson planted, when he planted it, in what type of soil it was planted, when it was transplanted, when it was harvested, and details explaining to the reader which plants thrived and which ones failed. Jefferson’s record also included notes about when the first flowers bloomed each year, when the first migrating birds were seen, and details about the temperature. Though Jefferson’s days were filled with travel, war, and decades of public service, he continually carried on a never-ending exchange of bulbs, seeds, and plants with individuals all over Europe and America.
Jefferson incessantly experimented with new plant varieties. Each year he grew 150 different fruit trees and up to 350 vegetables at one time. These included 50 varieties of peas, 44 varieties of beans, and nearly 30 different types of cabbage. Jefferson’s garden at Monticello was officially started in 1774, which makes it older than the United States (McCullough, 221). Wade Graham recorded that Jefferson stated that the “greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture” - this from the man who penned the Declaration of Independence! Jefferson’s vegetable garden was eighty feet wide and one thousand feet long, and is still cultivated today . . . his enduring legacy of statesmanship.
Graham, Wade. American Eden: From Monticello to Central park to our Backyards. (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 2011).
Lipscomb, Andrew A. and Albert Ellery Bergh. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 20 vols. (Washington D.C., 1903-1904) vol. 13.
McCullough, David. Brave Companions. (Simon & Schuster: New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, 1992)