The Ornamental Gardens of Monticello

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Here’s something you’ve all seen a million times –  the view of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello shown on the American nickel – and it’s been preserved and/or restored to its condition at the time of Jefferson’s death.  What’s changed are some of the plants, and even more so, how they’re arranged.

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Above, what the heck is this plant?  My notes fail me. 

On my recent visit I learned that though Jefferson did indeed design this West Lawn with a flower border along the winding walkway at its edge, divided into 10-foot sections, his instructions specified that each section would contain just one species.  Since then they’ve been redesigned by the Garden Club of Virginia in the current mixed-border style that you see here, though many of the popular plants from Jefferson’s day were used.

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Foliage from this Joseph’s Coat was used in salads. 

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The excellent garden tour guide, with cockscomb in foreground.
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Plants that were grown here in Jefferson’s day are identified with a “TJ” or “LC” at the top of the marker, denoting whether it was chosen by Jefferson himself or brought here by Lewis and Clark.  I found that little detail pretty exciting, historically. On the right is one of four cisterns installed by Jefferson, each holding 3,830 gallons.
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Meet Peter Hatch, who’s held the job of director of gardens at Monticello since 1977.  He remembers the grounds-keeping staff assigned to him then as mountain men from nearby Bacon Holler.  Scenes from the movie “Deliverance” come to mind.

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Above, some of the gardens at the recently completed Visitors Center, which is LEED-certified.

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Green roofs at the Visitor’s Center are covered not with the Sedums typically seen on roofs but with Buffalo grass because Peter decided it would look more appropriate here on this historic spot – which it certainly does. The vertical tufts are groom broom sedge, and the two species were planted in gravel with very little soil.

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Peter gave my friend and me a rare tour of the parking lot because that’s where he’s used some rarely seen plants – like the Little Bluestem you see on the right.  It not only looks gorgeous but is preventing erosion while trees are becoming established on a slope.  He has it weed-whacked once a year, in December.   

On the left you see the hard fescues Peter planted in this low-visibility spot because it looks good enough, and only needs to be cut once a year.  He does remember that it needed a whole lotta weeding during its first two years on this site.

Next – the Kitchen Gardens of Monticello.

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).
  • Also in Greenbelt, MD, writing the e-newsletter and serving on the Board of Directors for the cooperatively-owned music and arts venue and restaurant called the NEW DEAL CAFE.

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Great post! And am eagerly looking forward to the next one. As a native Virginian, I would, however, like to point out that it’s Bacon *Hollow,* not Holler (although sometimes pronounced that way). You’ll find that true across the South.

  2. Hey Judy – another Virginian here! I spent my first 14 years in Bon Air, near Richmond, then went to high school in Richmond itself. Also, my dad had a farm on Afton Mountain near Charlottesville.

  3. Celosia ‘Flamingo Feather’ for the lost ID on the first photo. That is what they look like at the end of summer. Earlier they are shorter and richer colored.

    Have ya’ll been getting any rain? Last year when I was at Monticello for the harvest festival things were kinda crispy. I’m hoping for more lushness when I come back in a few weeks.

    I grew buffalo grass when I lived in the southern plains, the wild form is not that easy to get going. It did best on solid sand or gravel or packed red clay – sites where nothing else would grow. The moment you improve the area with any sort of amendments or water the weeds took over. It couldn’t compete with anything.

  4. Hi, writting to from Brazil. First one is definetly Celosia argentea var. Spicatta. It’s a perpetual, and keeps its beautiful aspect long after you’ve drought it. Don’t know the popular name in english though

  5. Wonderful article and great pix! I wonder if perhaps the green roof might have “BROOM sedge” inserted of “groom sedge”?

  6. A great post indeed. If anyone is interested in seeing the episode from Growing a Greener World that we shot at Monticello, featuring Peter Hatch as our guest host, about the subject of Thomas Jefferson as an organic gardener, here’s the link so you can watch it. I think you’ll really enjoy the visuals and listening to Peter. He’s got a great way about him!
    http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/episode125/

  7. Did they explain why they changed Jefferson’s planting plans? Why not plant what he indicated and in the same manner as he originally specified?

    Scrap the Deliverance line. It took place in Georgia, anyway.

    Thanks for saying “my friend and me”. I hate it when people, much less journalists, confuse me and I.

  8. Please don’t blame Peter for the Deliverance reference. I’m the one who remembers scenes from that movie when I hear “mountain men” and “holler” for “hollow”. You can tell I’m a city girl.

  9. Then woe to you Susan, may you never be stuck on a dirt road in a foot of snow in your city car and have to depend on the kindness of a “mountain man” to pull you out with his tractor. What you are exhibiting is just plain old bigotry.

  10. I hit the wrong button and didn’t get to say that for those who are interested in Thomas Jefferson, and Washington, Adams and Madison, they will love The Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf and how the ideals of these men played out in their gardens.

  11. Hi Susan, Maragaret here. That first picture is an amazing Celosia I beleive. Beautiful plant. In reference to real gardens what are your tips on maintaining beautiful tropical plants in a cooler climate.

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