Garden Spotlight: Monticello

Monticello Garden

When we think of Thomas Jefferson, we may think of many of his titles – Lawyer, Revolutionary, Author of Independence, President. What many may not know about is this founding father’s curiosity and passion for experimentation, not only in the “American Experiment,” but in the fertility of the land on which it takes place. Join us as we talk about the many gardens of Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, and how it served as his retreat and his laboratory.

A Virginia native, Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, along the Rivanna River at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a region that would hold a special place in his heart. Such a special place that in 1768, Jefferson contracted the clearing of a 250-foot square portion on top of the mountain that overlooked his childhood home, Shadwell1. This would become the site of his own home, Monticello, and its bountiful gardens.

The Gardens

While many of us may have a small plot or bed for our produce gardens and grow all our favorite things, Jefferson used his vegetable garden (which he began to cultivate in 17702) to experiment with seeds from around the world to see what plants could be grown in the U.S., keeping extensive and detailed notes in his Garden Book3. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation®, Jefferson’s 1,000-foot-long garden played host to a recorded “330 varieties of more than 70 different species of vegetables.”4 Throughout his experimentation, Jefferson received seeds from around the world and often listed them in his Garden Book according to:

  • The person who sent the seeds
  • Place of origin
  • Physical characteristics, such as color or season of harvest5

But Jefferson didn’t just plant his seeds anywhere, he took a very strategic approach. Records show that in 1812 he organized his garden based on what he referred to as “’fruits’ (tomatoes, beans), ‘roots’ (beets, carrots), or ‘leaves’ (lettuce, cabbage).”2 It is believed that this could have been done as a way to rotate the crops to avoid the spread of disease in the roots and soil, though it is believed that the system stayed in place just the one year, as it may have proved difficult the keep up.6 You can hear more about this experimental system from Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants at Monticello, on this episode of the “A Rich Spot of Earth” podcast.

In addition to his large vegetable garden, Jefferson also had eight acres dedicated to his fruit garden, affectionately referred to as his “Fruitery.” This garden consisted of:

  • 400-tree South Orchard
  • 2 small vineyards on the northeast and southwest areas of the property
  • “Berry squares”
  • A nursery “where Jefferson propagated fruit trees and special garden plants”
  • “Submural beds”7

Within this garden, Jefferson experimented with more than 150 varieties of 31 different species of fruit, though he reserved his North Orchard for traditional apple and peach trees for making cider, brandy and livestock feed.7 It is said that “[b]oth the Monticello Fruitery (including the South Orchard) and the North Orchard reflected the two distinct forms of fruit growing that emerged in eighteenth-century Virginia,” and that like the founding father himself, “represented the best of the European heritage combined with a distinctive New World vitality and personality.” You can dig more into the rationale here.

The highlight of nearly every garden has got to be the stunning blooms of the budding blossoms, and their beauty was not lost on Jefferson. In fact, he had more than just one dedicated flower garden including a winding flower border around the West lawn and a series of oval flower beds placed around the main house. Within these flower beds, it is said, were about 25% “North American natives,” leading “the gardens [to] became, in part, a museum of New World botanical curiosities.”8

The Bees

Of course, with all this talk about gardens, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention honey bees and their impact on gardens around the world. Understanding the value and importance of honey bee pollination, records show the presence of honey bees at Monticello. Fun Fact: an original Jefferson drawing of the grounds shows bee houses in the poultry yards near the north and south outhouses9! Jefferson is also rumored to be the proud owner of a copy of Collateral Bee-Boxes: Or a New, Easy, and Advantageous Method of Managing Bees by Stephen White, and he even wrote about honey bees in his own book titled Notes on the State of Virginia.9 But Jefferson was not alone in his work, as Edmund Bacon, overseer of Monticello from September 1806 to October 1822, doubled as a beekeeper who tended to as many as 40+ hives.9

The Restoration

As happens with most things, the traditions of the Monticello house and gardens phased out until the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation was established and purchased the property in 1923, beginning repairs and restoration in 1924. The garden restorations began in 1939 with the flower border and beds, with the support of the Garden Club of Virginia, followed by the vegetable garden, South Orchard and vineyards in the 1980s, with the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants being established in 1986.10 The revival of beekeeping at Monticello came with beekeeper and Monticello volunteer Paul Legrand and started with 4 hives placed near the house in 2010. In the years since, the estate has added more hives to both Monticello and Tufton Farm, boasting 30 hives as of May 2023.6 Today, Anna Lobianco-Sims, Farm Assistant at Tufton Farm, tends to the property’s bees and honey harvesting. With such plant diversity surrounding them, the honey created by Monticello’s bees must be full of flavor! Want to try it for yourself? It’s available to purchase in the estate’s gift shop and is even featured in such products as beer, soap and hot sauce.

Thank you for joining us in this adventure in history. Do you know of another historic estate/garden? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!


1 Thomas Jefferson Biography - Life and facts about the third U.S. president. (n.d.). Monticello.

2 The site of the vegetable garden. (n.d.). Monticello.

3 Jefferson: the Scientist and Gardener. (n.d.). Monticello.

4 The Vegetable Garden at Monticello. (n.d.). Monticello.

5 19th-Century vegetables and cultivation techniques. (n.d.). Monticello.

6 “A rich spot of earth” - bees, peonies, and warm-weather vegetables. (n.d.). Monticello.

7 Overview of fruits at Monticello. (n.d.). Monticello.

8 Oval flower beds. (n.d.). Monticello.

9 Bees and honey. (n.d.). Monticello.

10 Celebrating 100 years of preservation and education. (n.d.). Monticello.