6 Seeds to Sow & Savor
Thomas Jefferson grew 250 varieties of more than 70 different species of vegetables at Monticello. The daily activities of sowing seeds, manuring asparagus, and harvesting peas between 1809 and 1826 are precisely recorded in his”Garden Kalendar,” a part of his famous Garden Book. Jefferson was often the detached scientist in the Kalendar as he recorded that his Hotspur peas were “killed by frost Oct. 23,” or that his yellow squash “came to nothing” in 1809. He could also record remarkable detail as in 1811 when he noted of his Asparagus beans that “2/3 pint sow a large square, rows 2 1/2 feet apart and 1 f. and 18 I. apart in the row, one half at each distance.”
For Jefferson, the vegetable garden was a kind of laboratory where he could experiment with imported squashes and broccoli from Italy, beans and salsify collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, figs from France, and peppers from Mexico. Although he would grow as many as twenty varieties of bean and fifteen types of English pea, his use of the scientific method selectively eliminated inferior types: “I am curious to select one or two of the best species or variety of every garden vegetable, and to reject all others from the garden to avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy.”
This year, experiment in your own garden or inspire your gardening-enthusiast friends with Jefferson’s successes cultivated by Monticello and the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. These tasty heirloom varieties are sure to spice up your garden and your plate.
Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer in tomato culture; planting this relatively unfamiliar vegetable from 1809, the first summer of his retirement, until his death in 1826. He also noted that tomatoes were grown in Virginia gardens in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782. Costoluto Genovese is an old, indeterminate Italian preserving tomato. Although an oddity in today’s vegetable garden, this variety’s heavily-lobed and convoluted shape reflects the character of early 19th-century tomatoes. Its stellar flavor is intense and acidic; its unusual shape makes it most suitable for sauces and pastes after its skin is removed.
Sow seeds ¼” deep in pots indoors 6-8 weeks before last spring frost; keeping the soil moist but not soggy. When several leaves have developed, harden off the seedlings outdoors, then transplant to the garden 18″–36″ apart. 85-90 days to maturity.
Thomas Jefferson experimented with this African native, first planting it in 1809 and edging his tomato square with a border of okra in 1813. Okra, a member of the Mallow family, is a highly ornamental vegetable with its large, tropical leaves and handsome yellow flowers. Jefferson family recipes include various types of okra stews in which okra was blended with tomatoes and other tangy vegetables. Steve Bender, the “Grumpy Gardener” of Southern Living, believes okra is the “quintessential southern vegetable” and that Jefferson set many of today’s southern staples.
‘Cow’s Horn’ is a heirloom variety with distinctive curved fruits. Plant seeds after the last spring frost in fertile, sunny, well-drained garden soil. Thin seedlings so they are at least 8″ apart. Harvest the young fruits when they are no longer than 3″ long.
Tennis Ball was among Thomas Jefferson’s favorite lettuce varieties. He noted that “it does not require so much care and attention” as other types. Tennis Ball, the parent of our modern Boston race of lettuces so popular today, was first sold by American seedsmen late in the 18th century. The variety was recently enjoyed by the current President and his family when it was planted in the section of the White House garden inspired by Jefferson in 2010.
Tennis Ball is distinctive for its delicate, pale-green leaves, which form a loose head. Sow seeds early in the spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, in rich, well-prepared soil and thin seedlings to six inches apart. Tennis Ball is also suitable for fall crops that may be planted in late summer. 55 days to maturity.
During his presidency, Jefferson kept a pickle barrel for guests in his house and this heirloom is a great option for pickling today. The “gerkin,” Cucumis anguiria, was a surprisingly common crop in the late summer Monticello vegetable garden, planted in six seasons between 1812 and 1824, sometimes in July. Jefferson recommended it to his brother, Randolph, in 1813: “the season being over for planting everything but the Gerkin. It is that by which we distinguish the very small pickling cucumber.” This was likely the West Indian gherkin, a native of Africa brought to the Caribbean through the slave trade, then reputedly introduced from Jamaica by Minton Collins in his Richmond store in 1792.
The West Indian gherkin is an aggressive vine with smallish leaves that are lobed like a miniature watermelon leaf. The short, three-inch, plump fruit are round, firm, and covered with blunt spines. Sow the seeds two feet apart in hills or rows from late spring until mid-summer. Harvest the fruits when 1” – 2” around, dress with salt for 24 hours, and then pack them into glass jars. Cover with warm malt vinegar and add ½ teaspoon of dill seed. Secure jars with air-tight lids: the pickled gherkins will be ready in about two months.
Jefferson was sent seeds of this pretty, dwarf pepper by Samuel Brown from San Antonio, Texas in 1812 and 1813. Brown stated how the dried peppers were as “essential to my health as salt itself.” Jefferson, hopeful this species might be hardier than others, sowed the seed in pots and in square XII of the Monticello Vegetable Garden. He also forwarded seeds to Philadelphia nurseryman, Bernard McMahon, who apparently popularized the Bird Pepper as an ornamental pot plant in Pennsylvania.
The Texas Bird Pepper is a lush, compact plant (one foot height) covered in early fall with tiny (1/2”), reddish-orange peppers. Samuel Brown said, “The Spaniards use it in fine Powder & seldom eat anything without it. The Americans … make a pickle of the green Pods with Salt & Vinegar which they use with Lettuce, Rice, Fish, etc.” Sow the seeds indoors a month before the last Spring frost, then transplant the seedlings into sunny, well-drained garden soil.
Thomas Jefferson had a well-documented taste for peas and participated in pea growing competitions with his Monticello neighbors each spring. In the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘Prince Albert’ was the most popular of all the varieties of English Pea in the United States. It was grown in England before 1837 and introduced into the United States in 1845. Fearing Burr, who described American vegetables in 1863, felt ‘Prince Albert’ was indistinguishable from ‘Early Frame’, one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites among the fifteen varieties he cultivated at Monticello.
Garden peas enjoy cool, moist growing conditions. At Monticello, gardeners sow them around March 1 for a crop in mid-May. We also use four-foot-high branches, or “pea sticks,” to support this twining vegetable. Sow the seed in a well-drained, garden soil about six feet apart.
For 62 more varieties of vegetables visit www.monticelloshop.org!