Sunday, January 15, 2012

Garden-Related Book: “Founding Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf

What do you do when it’s too cold to garden? You read about gardens. Yes, not only am I a garden geek, I’m also a book geek – and a bit of a history geek, as well. I blame my interest in history on two people: My mom for giving me an appreciation of American history and my art history teacher in college for giving me an appreciation of European history.

My mom grew up in Virginia and whenever we’d go there for a visit she would make sure to take us to somewhere historic. From president’s homes like Monticello (Jefferson’s home) and Mount Vernon (Washington’s home) to the many battlefields, we got a fine education in American history. So given that background, I think it’s pretty obvious why I was excited when I heard about Andrea Wulf’s new book, “Founding Gardeners,” which I recently finished reading. It’s about Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison as farmers and gardeners – showing how their passion for gardening helped shape American history. Before I read the book I had gone to a lecture given by the author at Winterthur in Delaware. The lecture had me hooked and the book was simply fascinating at least to this garden/history geek! I’m sure I’ll do a very poor job of explaining what the lecture and this book were all about, but I’ll give it a shot. 

I think it’s an interesting perspective to have an author who was born in India, raised in Germany, and moved to England write a book about America’s founding fathers and their gardens. Ms. Wulf had no idea that America had such a rich garden history until she was doing research about botanist/horticulturalist/explorer John Bartram for her book “The Brother Gardeners.” (Surprisingly, I have not read that one yet.) While following in the footsteps of Bartram, Andrea found herself in Virginia and decided to pop in and see Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello. In her words, she was “flabbergasted.”  Jefferson had crafted his grounds as carefully as he had planned his house transitioning the wild forests into his orchards, vegetable garden and decorative gardens. Her real epiphany came when she saw his huge vegetable garden (1,000 feet long) that was carved into the hillside. She realized that here was a truly innovative gardener who successfully changed the landscape so that it was a perfect union of wild and rugged, ornamental and useful.

When America was still under British rule, we weren’t planting native plants in our gardens. Instead we were obsessed with European plants, while Europe was the one obsessed with plants from The New World. Most of Philadelphian John Bartram’s clients were Europeans. So it was pioneering thinking when Washington, who was busy fighting the war with Britain, wrote his property manager and told him to rip out the gardens and start over with native American plants. As you approach the bowling green at Mount Vernon, it’s trees and shrubs that are native to this country that you first see. The great American hero wanted a great American garden. It symbolized his patriotism and his dedication to the future of this country. These days we hear a lot about gardening with native plants, however, when Washington decided to start his garden over with native plants and trees it was a pretty novel idea.

The American Revolution instilled a want of independence on many levels. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison felt that agriculture was the key to our survival as an independent country. We needed to be self-sufficient and our gardens and farms would help us stand on our own two feet. These men shared the idea that working the land was the most honorable pursuit, whereas industrialized cities could lead to corruption. An agrarian society would make America strong and independent. As Jefferson said in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” book: “Cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens.”

All four men were avid readers of any new book on agriculture and farming they could lay their hands on. They read the latest from Europe and tried to find ways to implement their ideas in America. They experimented with new crops, crop rotation, different types of fertilizers, and produced tools to make their plantations more efficient. They collected and exchanged seeds to find out what did well and what didn’t. They shared idea with other farmers, thinking of themselves as just farmers as well. 

Thomas Jefferson was an experimenter, a planner, and an obsessive note-taker. His vegetable garden is the best example of that. He would plant many different varieties of the same vegetables and record what did well and what did not. His home, Monticello, was also a constantly changing “experiment” he was always designing, building, then tearing down and starting over. He was a man of many ideas. It’s as if the real world couldn’t keep up with his brain as soon as he got an idea and implemented it he had another new idea. He believed in the “sublime beauty” of America and his house takes full advantage of that as it sits on a hilltop overlooking the mountains and valleys around Charlottesville, VA. He carefully planned the road that took visitors to his home so that they would transition from the wilderness, to tamed forests, to a working farm, to decorative gardens.

While Washington and Jefferson were visionary in gardening and farming, they weren’t usually the ones doing the “real” work. They rode around their plantations on horseback overseeing the work of others. They relied on their plantation managers to execute their ideas and their slaves to do the manual labor. In contrast, John Adams was a much more hands-on gardener. He was happiest while working the earth. In fact, he had a true obsession with manure. Yep, manure. He read about manure, conversed about it, experimented with it, and was constantly trying to find the formula for the best manure because he believed it was key to good soil. He had a much smaller plantation than the others, however, he felt his garden was essential to his happiness. 

Madison’s home at Montpelier was a model farm where he applied the many things he learned from reading gardening and farming books. Madison was also one of the country’s first environmentalists. As Americans moved westward, the wilderness and forests were seen as obstacles that had to be removed. Madison promoted the idea that our forests and lands were precious and should be preserved and treated with respect. After being elected as the first president of the Agricultural Society of Albermarle County in Virginia, he gave a memorable speech that earned him the reputation as one of the most respected farmers in America at that time. He spoke of soil conservation and chemistry, plant physiology, over-timbering, preserving nature, and more. His theories came from the many books that he had read, however, he was the first one to bring all of these ideas together. His approach was revolutionary.

All four men were thankful when they retired because it allowed them to do what they wanted to do most – be in the garden. They saw themselves as gardeners and farmers more than politicians or revolutionary heroes. However, they knew their homes and gardens would be part of their legacy and they wanted America to know they were patriots in every possible way.

There is much more fascinating history in “Founding Gardeners,” I only touched on a few key things. I can’t say enough how much I loved this book. I found it truly fascinating how it looked at history through the founding father’s gardens such a new and interesting perspective. Almost a quarter of the book is “notes” with bibliographies and such, so it’s clear a lot of research went into it. I also really enjoyed Andrea Wolf’s writing style. She helped bring to life these men and their gardens. Not only were they revolutionary heroes, they were pioneering gardeners and farmers who made a lasting impact on America’s agricultural history.

Below are links to the homes and gardens of the four founding fathers featured in “Founding Gardeners.” All homes are well worth the visit:
George Washington’s Mount Vernon (VA)
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (VA)
John Adams’s Old House at Peace (MA) field
James Madison’s Montpelier (VA)

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