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The Gardening Sage of Monticello

In Retirement, Gardener and Jefferson Scholar Is Still Inspired by the ‘First Foodie’ Retirement

  • Thomas Jefferson’s restored vegetable gardens at Monticello are the subject of Peter Hatch’s book, "A Rich Spot of Earth". (Washington Post)

    Thomas Jefferson’s restored vegetable gardens at Monticello are the subject of Peter Hatch’s book, "A Rich Spot of Earth". (Washington Post)

  • Peter Hatch oversaw the cultivation of Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. (Washington Post)

    Peter Hatch oversaw the cultivation of Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. (Washington Post)

  • Thomas Jefferson’s restored vegetable gardens at Monticello are the subject of Peter Hatch’s book, "A Rich Spot of Earth". (Washington Post)
  • Peter Hatch oversaw the cultivation of Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. (Washington Post)

When the press of Monticello became too much for him, Thomas Jefferson decamped to a smaller architectural jewel of his own making, a country house named Poplar Forest.

I am thinking of this when I observe Peter Hatch pull beets from his new garden near his family home in Albemarle County. Hatch decamped from Monticello last year, where he was the director of gardens and grounds for 35 years.

Over a long career, he directed the cultivation of one of the grandest vegetable gardens in the world — a two-acre, 1,000-foot-long plateau below Jefferson’s Palladian palace. When a hurricane came through, he would organize the estate’s preparations and the cleanup. After a winter blizzard, Hatch orchestrated a soundscape of rumbling snowplows and waspish chain saws. On a routine day, he could be seen riding a tractor or pulling weeds.

“I liked the nuts and bolts of it,” he says. But to think of Hatch as a groundskeeper alone would be to regard Jefferson merely as a rosy-cheeked country lawyer from Charlottesville. As a close observer of the agrarian Jefferson and as an author, Hatch has probably done more than anyone else in defining the third president as a gardener, a farmer, an orchardist, a viniculturist. A Founding Father literally grounded in the American soil.

Hatch has capped his career with a book, A Rich Spot of Earth, in which we find the curious and multifaceted Jefferson with a curious and multifaceted garden: a personal garden, a community garden, a national collection of plants from the Lewis and Clark Expedition — a garden as miscellaneous as America itself. Hatch links Jefferson’s endeavors to the political, social and environmental currents now swirling around the garden-to-table movement.

After years of not just studying old planting schemes, but also replicating them in a rank of square plant beds, Hatch argues that Jefferson discarded the Colonial model of a formal garden and embraced new veggies that would flourish in the Virginia heat — tomatoes, squash, okra, eggplant, peanuts, peppers and lima beans. Jefferson introduced his fellow gardeners to a veggie smorgasbord that resonates still, though he also tried the more obscure sea kale, winter melon, orach and black salsify.

Jefferson recorded planting 330 varieties of 99 species of vegetables and herbs.

He grew Indian corn but also turned his garden, Hatch says, into “an Ellis Island of introduced vegetables.” In coming to terms with the First Foodie (Hatch’s label), we are lucky to have Jefferson’s garden not just on paper but rebuilt on the side of his perch in the Blue Ridge. The terrace is held together with a stone wall with 5,000 tons of rock — it took a crew of slaves three years to create the garden in advance of Jefferson’s retirement, and it took another three years, in the early 1980s, to reconstruct it after careful archaeological inquiry led by Monticello’s now-retired architectural historian, William Beiswanger, and archaeologist William Kelso.

When Hatch arrived earlier, in 1977, the rough contours were evident, but not the structure of the garden. The wall had been partially dismantled or buried in earth, part of the garden was a parking lot, and much of it was used as a cut-flower garden for arrangements in the house.

The restoration featured the imposing wall, rising to 12 feet, a fruit orchard, a wooden fence and a replica of Jefferson’s garden pavilion. Hatch laid out the planting beds based on Jefferson’s records and directed the planting and cultivation. Along the way, he wrote a book on Jefferson’s tribulations with fruit in The Fruit and Fruit Trees of Monticello.

Today, 450,000 people from across the United States and around the globe visit the garden each year.

I have known many estate gardeners over the years, but Hatch’s duality as head gardener and Jefferson scholar sticks out as being remarkable and, frankly, odd.

Monticello’s retired executive director Dan Jordan worked with Hatch for 24 years. “There’s no way to overestimate his contributions to our understanding of an important part of Jefferson’s legacy,” Jordan told me. “The fact that Peter was so connected physically and emotionally to Jefferson’s garden gave him insight that no one else has had.”

At my bidding, Hatch plonked himself down on a soft, red chintz sofa and told me his story.

He was raised in suburban Detroit but spent most of his life in the South. This has served to soften his voice and project a folksiness that doesn’t quite succeed in masking his erudition or sense of irony. Sometimes his wry observations end in a soft, rich, endless chuckle.

Hatch graduated in 1971 as an English major from the University of North Carolina, dreaming of becoming a poet. “It was the Age of Aquarius, I went west and lived with my girlfriend in Southern California. I was reading poetry and drinking tawny port at 4 in the afternoon. I read John Berryman and Robert Bly.”

When it came time to find a job, he applied for a teaching post (English and ice hockey) at a prep school in Massachusetts. His mother, aghast at his hirsute state, took him to a hairdresser, who cleaned him up. Hatch has famously unruly hair, and he appeared at the job interview nervously chatty and with “a Prince Valiant haircut.” He didn’t get the job.

Around the same time, he discovered the joys of organic gardening and enrolled in a horticultural program in North Carolina. “I thought: Wouldn’t this be a great career while I read poetry on the side?”

He went to work at Old Salem, a historic Colonial settlement in Winston-Salem, N.C. After three years, he came to Monticello. He found a place that had none of the sophistication or professional marketing and donor cultivation that goes today with a major house museum (and World Heritage Site). “By Old Salem standards, it was kind of crude. It was Mr. Jefferson this and Mr. Jefferson that, hostesses in the house. Very Southern.”

In the 21st century, people struggle to reconcile how the author of the Declaration of Independence could also have been a slaveholder. Hatch views Jefferson as a sphinx of sorts. “A very difficult figure to pin down. You search forever to find him.” This is part of his greatness, Hatch believes.

Hatch has been promoting A Rich Spot of Earth since its publication last year and thinks he can “ride the book” for another year. He is intrigued by the fact that although Jefferson meticulously logged his garden varieties and planting dates over many years, he didn’t really recount the details of their cultivation.

“His ultimate contribution was not as a gardener but as a champion of gardeners,” he said.

He is gripped by the idea that when Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, it may have been from indulging in his own produce. “A family tradition held that Jefferson never recovered from eating cucumbers a few days before his death,” writes Hatch.

Hatch grows peppers, tomatoes, cabbages, beets, squash and more in his own little garden on the other side of his house from a gushing creek. It is an ordinary vegetable garden that anyone around there might grow, except that Hatch is quietly aware that his prosaic and practical little patch flows directly from the mind of Thomas Jefferson.

Like his spectral boss, Hatch has moved on to another, more placid phase of his life. His work at Monticello “sounds like a dream role in life, but it was still a job.

“It’s easy to write books about Thomas Jefferson, but it’s a lot harder to keep the deer from eating the cabbage.”