Our Founding Gardeners

I have never reviewed a book for this blog…until now. In honor of Independence Day, I thought I would introduce Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf. Landscape and gardening history is one of my favorite topics, so when a dear friend recommended the book, I snatched up my e-reader to take a look.

One of Wulf’s main themes centers on just how passionate and important gardening and agriculture were in the minds of several of the Constitutional signers. Yes, early America was still an agrarian society, on the brink of the Industrial Revolution, but the fact that every American (free or not) needed to grow their own food just to survive does not explain the fervor of the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison. For these four (and especially Washington and Jefferson), growing plants was uppermost in their thoughts. Washington obsessively corresponded with his land steward concerning Mount Vernon operations. Unlike other colonists, who planted their property with reminders of the Old World, Washington turned Mount Vernon into a celebratory arboretum of New World species. He and Jefferson saw agriculture as key to American independence. He even invented a more efficient method of threshing wheat using a sixteen sided barn. Horses stomped across the harvested wheat laying on a wood slatted floor, allowing wheat kernels to fall through to the next level of the barn. When Washington was away from his home, he longed to return. He reluctantly assumed the Presidency, and was eager to leave the office and return. Surely his love of farming played some role in him only seeking two terms.

While gentleman farmer George focused upon agricultural crops, Jefferson went bonkers for vegetables. It is safe to say Jefferson was America’s first true foodie. Jefferson developed, over the course of his lifetime, a 1,000 foot long terraced vegetable growing laboratory, where he experimented with over 300 new and old varieties of vegetables. He corresponded with many like-minded gardeners on both sides of the pond as well as nurserymen, often exchanging seeds. Most vegetable gardens of the period relied on cool season crops familiar to Europeans. The summer months often brought barren veggie patches. Jefferson pioneered lots of new warm season crops like tomatoes, okra, peppers and peanuts. When Jefferson sent Lewis and Clarke on their continental adventure, he waited anxiously for their return, anticipating the wealth of newly discovered plant species.

Jefferson took the idea of the gentleman farmer much further than Washington ever did. To Jefferson, the American farmer was the ideal American. He developed an idealized new nation which would be principally an agrarian society. Not only would a nation of farmers produce its own food, thus ensuring independence from foreign rule, but a farmer nation would be decentralized enough to ensure individual liberty. To Jefferson, farmers were the key to the future.

Founding Gardeners goes on to discuss how Jefferson and Adams bonded over gardening when traveling France together on the future nation’s behalf. In addition, Wulf describes the design of the Capitol and much more. I found the book engaging and recommend it for a great summer read.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager

2 thoughts on “Our Founding Gardeners

  1. Emma Wynn

    Love the book (and your review), a fascinating read and well written. I have visited both Mount Vernon and Monticello and probably spent more time in the gardens than in the houses! I even did a Dinner and a Book episode on the book! Looking forward to the next book review.

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