So the main purpose of the trip was to visit Polyface Farms. Turns out that Monticello is not very far away. In an amazing coincidence Miss Mercy was at a Master Gardener presentation on Presidential gardens and Monticello was part of the presentation. A text to the Mad Farmer went “want to add the Monticello gardens to our trip” and the answer back was “Yeah” (or something similar to that exchange, it has been a while but you get the gist). So Monticello was added to the itinerary.
Monticello is an amazing place. Multiple times it was relayed to visitors on the tour groups at Thomas Jefferson was a type of Renaissance Man but also a product of his times. Thomas Jefferson did many amazing things, including drafting the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson also owned over 600 slaves during the course of his life. While Jefferson professed he did not believe in slavery he was never able to reconcile the economics of slavery with freeing his slaves. It appears the only slaves he ever actually freed were the children he had with his slave mistress, Sallie Hemmings. The Mad Farmer is not the person to be able to reconcile all the good Jefferson did, all the amazing things he did and the horrible institution of treating people like property. So, we’ll leave that to history, profess it’s beyond the Farmer’s comprehension and move on to Monticello itself.
Jefferson designed Monticello himself and there are many European influences in the architecture. On the House tour we were told that there were two phases to the building. Originally there was a first floor with eight rooms and eventually, after many years of construction, the 2nd floor and 3rd floor dome were completed. Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer took the evening house tour – we highly recommend it. The evening tour starts at about 5:30 pm and lasts until about 8 pm. You can arrive at Monticello as soon as it opens and spend the day taking tours and wandering the grounds until the evening tour. The daytime house tours usually only cover the ground floor. The evening tour is a smaller group, covers all the floors from the dome to the basement and is very informative.
We arrived about 11 am and ended up taking the Garden Tour, the Slavery Tour and exploring the grounds for the rest of the day. Jefferson apparently never met a growing thing he didn’t love. Trees, flowers, plants and vegetables were all things he enjoyed, planted and observed. According to his daughters journals he was never happier then when he was puttering about his garden beds. There are three main areas of growing things on the site. There are the terraced vegetable beds, the flower path that surrounds the commons on the front of the house and the flower beds that surround the house. One of the coolest things is the Monticello website has an option to find out what flowers are growing when and where they are on the grounds. You can explore what is growing at Monticello, when and where at In Bloom at Monticello.
The flower path in front of Monticello is a wandering oval, that is lined on both sides with a variety of flowers every few feet. We were told that Jefferson’s favorite plant was a “Sensitive Plant”. The Sensitive plant curls inward when you place you hand near it, apparently it’s related to carnivorous plants, like the Venus flytrap. The variety of plants is amazing. The grounds were overgrown for decades and when they were eventually restored they were reconstructed based on Jefferson’s notes. Jefferson kept meticulous notes and sketches and recorded the daily temperatures in his notebooks for decades. According to the journals there were originally about twenty flower beds around Monticello itself. Turns out Jefferson found that was not nearly enough for everything he wanted to plant so he added the oval flower path and kept on experimenting.
One of the best things about Monticello are the terraced vegetable gardens. Originally there was only mountainside, the terraces were man made. In modern times the terraces would be dug by heavy equipment or the Permaculture equivalent of an Amish barn raising. In the 18th century, there was no heavy equipment, or Permaculture, so we’ll leave it to the imagination to how the terraces were actually developed. The Garden tour guide told us that the vegetable gardens were not adequate to grow enough produce to feed the entire plantation, mostly they produced for the Jefferson family and guests. Many of the slave households had their own gardens, to produce for themselves and sold the excess to Jefferson – even under the most dire circumstances capitalism was apparently a thing.
As awe inspiring as the garden and flower beds are, the actually housing complex that is Monticello is almost overwhelming. During the house tour were where told that Jefferson designed the house and decorated all of it, at least the first floor, to be a teaching moment for everyone who came to visit. The lobby has artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition, fossils, Greek busts and lots of other things, including a perpetual clock designed to tell the day and time using cannonball weights. Turns out when Jefferson designed the clock the lobby space wasn’t high enough to show Saturday so he had holes cut in the floor and if you go in the basement you can see the label for Saturday. Jefferson had a seven day clock in a six day space.
In conclusion, Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer really enjoyed Monticello. There is every chance that your homesteading duo will be returning to the area and exploring further. We did not have time to visit the gardens at Mount Vernon (we hear George Washington is an interesting fellow) and Jamestown and Yorktown are within an hour of Monticello. There is a lot of history in the area and a lot of gardening going on, so it’s worth a look if you have the chance.