While you probably know Thomas Jefferson as the third president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the founder of the University of VA - did you know he was also an avid gardener? At his Charlottesville estate Monticello, Jefferson kept meticulous notes about every detail, including the crops he grew and the weather conditions each day. Monticello’s garden has been painstakingly restored and is tended with ecologically-conscious, organic methods. It’s a living time capsule where you’ll find heirloom vegetable varieties grown since Jefferson’s time.
Manager of Farm and Nursery Operations Keith Nevison told us how the region’s long spring seasons are perfect for producing broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale, and the hot, humid summers with ample rain are ideal for classic southern crops like beans, okra, corn, and of course, tomatoes! Monticello's garden team focuses on heirlooms, specifically the early American varieties Jefferson grew - including one of our favorites, the delicious Brandywine. Some of these centuries-old heirlooms can compete with modern types in terms of disease, climate, and rain resistance - and some even have superior flavor.
Jefferson’s popularity and stature helped him promote new and different foods like the tomato, which was grown Monticello and served at the White House during a time when tomatoes were generally thought to be shady aphrodisiacs (that scandalous red color!) or even poisonous. There was no refrigeration back then, so people mainly grew and ate what stored well in root cellars: cucumbers, cabbages, potatoes, squash, and others. A neat trick for storing tomatoes was picking them green and wrapping them in paper so they would ripen very slowly, even through the winter.
Virginia’s climate and culture led to a diverse produce scene - a mix of cool-weather crops popular in Europe, like greens, and exotic vegetables brought by migrants and enslaved
Africans, like eggplant and okra - which readily adapted to the hot and humid southern summertime. American cuisine was heating up from all kinds of introduced chilis, too. Jefferson grew cayenne peppers as early as 1767. Heirloom varieties made their way into the local scene: Hinklehatz pickling peppers from the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Afro-Caribbean Fish pepper for seafood dishes, and the tiny, spicy McMahon’s Bird Pepper out of Texas. All of this exciting produce created unique culinary experiences at Monticello, a tradition that continues today at Monticello Farm Table.
Monticello is seen as one of the most iconic gardens in the country. Seed collection has been going on there for decades, and you’d be hard-pressed to find that kind of hands-on sustainability at a typical museum. By continuing to grow special heirlooms and sharing the seeds, Monticello gives us an opportunity to enjoy history through food. Preserving Jefferson’s gardens also protects nature - it creates habitat for pollinators and rare species like bluebirds.
While it’s since reopened with increased safety and sanitation measures, Monticello was closed for several months due to the pandemic. During this time, the grounds and gardens staff focused on beautifying the space and enriching the landscape for guests to enjoy. The pandemic also presented opportunities for people to rediscover food preparation and preservation methods - everything from gardening to canning and fermentation. Monticello helps people reconnect to these lost arts with their seeds and plants. They have since experienced a massive surge in demand for their nursery products.
Jefferson’s cultivation of tomatoes opened the public’s eyes (and mouths) to our favorite veggie and its White House debut helped make it an indispensable ingredient in our cooking and cocktails. This legacy lives on in Monticello Grown Farm & Garden Bloody Brilliant mix, made with Monticello-grown tomatoes. Keith describes it as “rich, lovely, and alive.” Monticello remains deeply entrenched in tomato lore, and we're thrilled to collaborate with their farm crew to share some of its tastiest history.