Garden Like Thomas Jefferson

Four Plants I'm Growing From Thomas Jefferson's 1777 Garden

Happy 4th of July everyone!

In honor of Independence Day, I thought it might be fitting to take a look back at the life of one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Don’t worry, this won’t be a history lesson, or at least not one that you would have sat through in grade school!

Many of you already know that Thomas Jefferson was America’s 3rd president. I’d be willing to bet that you also knew that he wrote the Declaration of Independence (with some editing by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams). And if you play a lot of trivial pursuit like my brother, you may even be aware that he commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition out west and that his administration struck a deal with Napoleon of France, attaining one of the largest land grabs on the continent, in the form of the Louisiana Purchase. But my guess is that you did not know Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener.

Thomas Jefferson was not known for being a great orator. In fact he was somewhat shy when it came to public speaking. On the contrary, he was an incredible writer. This is largely why he was picked to write the Declaration of Independence. And aside from writing major publications, he took a lot of notes. He did that with everything from his work to his hobbies. It is because of this we have a book available to us called “Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book” giving us a historical account of what he grew each year at his home that he called Monticello. (Click the image for more information.)

Essentially it was a journal to him, specifically about his garden. And was the inspiration for the Four Season Gardener site! The book lays out what he grew each year and will even go into descriptions about what each plant variety might have been.

I thought it would be interesting to compare what he grew the year of 1776 against my garden to see similarities and differences. I had anticipated there to be at least some discrepancies given that his garden was in Virginia which is a completely different climate zone than mine in Wisconsin. What I did not anticipate is that if you turn to the pages covering 1776, he did not have time to write anything down (garden wise) that year. Apparently he was to busy with the country at the time to make any notes even if he did grow plants that year.

So, let’s instead take a look at the following year, just as a reference to the types of things he may have grown (if he did in fact grow anything) the year we declared Independence. Here are four plants he grew in 1777 and what I’m growing that is similar today in 2017.

1. Peas

If there is one plant that showed up multiple times, each and every year, it would be peas. Thomas Jefferson loved peas. And how could you blame him. Peas taste fantastic straight from the garden. A sweet snack to eat right after picking, or you could cook with them and also freeze a bag for winter.

The variety I am growing is a “Garden Marvel” pea. This may not be the exact variety that he grew, but my guess is that it is a similar style to the one found at Monticello. Being that I direct seeded them April 15th and it is now July, mine are nearly done producing.

2. Cavalo Nero

One thing is for sure, there were a lot of Italian varieties planted in Thomas Jefferson’s garden. He had a local friend who came to America from Italy and brought with him a number of different varieties of seeds.Can you imagine if we still traveled around carrying seeds with us wherever we go? Cavalo Nero is really a variety of kale. Some refer to it as “Black Kale”. I’ve also seen this called “Lacinato Kale” It has a really deep green color which I like to think means it’s healthy for you. Very easy to cook with and also to grow!

 3. Lettuce

A staple in most people’s gardens, lettuce was common even when our country was being born. I can probably guarantee you that the lettuce I am growing are not the same varieties as Thomas Jefferson. Even if you do not have the space to grow anything outside where you live, give growing lettuce a try. A nice sunny windowsill is all you need.

 4. Cavolo Romano Paonazzo (Purple Cabbage)

The “Cavolo Romano Paonazzo” apparently is a purple cabbage plant. The closest thing to this that I am growing is a variety of red cabbage. The more I grow it, the more uses I am finding for this plant. Whether it is in an old school German red cabbage recipe, or lightly pickled with shredded carrots to accompany an Asian inspired dish, I find red cabbage is slowly becoming more numerous in the garden.

So those are just four vegetables that Thomas Jefferson grew in his 1777 garden. I noticed that over the years, the amount of plants he had, increased drastically. Ironically it seems, my garden continues to grow in size every year as well.


Before I go I wanted to give you a glimpse of the outdoor garden now that it is July. I managed to capture the garden right before a huge storm hit. The garden is finally hitting it’s stride and really filling out.

Hopefully things are growing well in your gardens as well! Until next time.

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About the Author

Geoff has been growing plants and vegetables consistently for the last 6 years and actively experiments with, and writes about, all aspects of gardening.


  1. Geoff, your garden looks amazing.

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