I’m writing for this space my Letter to Pat Brodowski of Monticello. She is the head gardener at Jefferson’s Monticello. For two years now we have been engaged in a seed exchange. I send her Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara seeds. She sends me Jefferson seeds. We plant them in our respective gardens, and then share data about how things grew. Jefferson would love this experiment. He was exceedingly eager to create these kinds of triangulations with seeds, weather reports, crop reports, experimental planting, etc.
I cannot go to the annual Monticello Harvest Festival this year. I have to be in Phoenix. So I am sending this short report to Pat so that she can talk about our project during her presentations at the festival.
My report is pretty unsystematic. Jefferson might be ashamed. In the spring, I brought in several large loads of four-year-old manure, the gift of a nearby ranch. The manure filled my 12 x 24 foot Jefferson Square IX Garden. In fact, the volume of manure was such that I was not really able to work it into the soil that was already there. This new manure/soil was sufficiently hot that it did not produce good beans or peas, or lettuce, but it produced outstanding squashes, melons, sunflowers, corn, and tomatoes.
Still, it was not a great year for the Jefferson Square IX Garden. I have not yet harvested more than two ears of corn. They are exceptionally beautiful, “Indian corn,” in t his case Mandan and Hidatsa. I’m going to attach a photograph. This year I have two Arikara watermelons, which are still growing some. The tomatoes were a bit shaded out by the corn, which grew to be eight feet high, but they will produce. We’ve had some difficult weather: hail in late June, and then shortly after that the strongest winds I have ever seen in North Dakota. Near Williston they were clocked at 70 mph plus, and here in Bismarck I feel sure the gusts exceeded 60 mph at times. Both of these events set my garden back. The hail actually shredded my corn. It beat down tomatoes. And the high wind actually blew down several rows of corn. I got only one gherkin from the Jefferson garden, but it was delicious. I have gourds, exotic squashes, and pumpkins in the Jefferson garden that are going to e amazing.
In my larger, typical Great Plains garden, things have been somewhat unusual. I always plant more than 50 tomato plants. The hail really set things back. For most of the summer I have been worried about the tomatoes, but now they are starting to produce and if the first frost waits another month, I’m going to have a very large crop. The fruit is smaller than usual, but it is moderately prolific. It can freeze anytime after Labor Day in North Dakota, but I expect we have at least three weeks of growing weather left.
My corn has been spectacular. I have to share a fair amount of it with a very pesky pair of pheasants. I have done everything possible to discourage them, from little windmills to a silhouette of a coyote to a paint ball gun. But they keep poaching my corn. I actually put rubber bands around the tips of the ears to make it difficult for the pheasants to shuck the corn, but they are really tenacious. My good friend Jim Fuglie comes over with his dog Lizzie from time to time, and Lizzie chases the pheasants up over the hill, but they come back when they reckon things are safe.
The great surprise of this year’s garden has been cucumbers. Although I got only one Jefferson gherkin, I have had a wild profusion of cucumbers. I’ve never had much luck with them, and they are sacred in my family tradition, so I planted four or five hills his spring. Suddenly I am buried in cucumbers. I have made seven gallons of refrigerator pickles, one third sweet, two thirds sour, and I’ve so far put up 42 jars of sliced and whole cucumber dill pickles. And the most amazing thing about cucumbers is that you no sooner harvest what you have than three days later there are five or eight more large cucumbers that grew more or less instantly.
I had just enough beets to make three pint jars of canned beets. I’ve made perhaps eight quarts of creamed corn, and will make 25 more quarts before I am done.
My onions were small. They essentially dug themselves out of the ground when they were only a little more than golf ball size. Next year, deeper.
My carrots failed. My radishes grew too large while I was working in Canada, so I roasted those I ate, along the lines of Jim Fuglie’s superb roast radish plate.
All of this confirms the wisdom of Jefferson’s August 20, 1811, letter to Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one through the year. Under a total want of demand except for our family table, I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
As far as I am concerned the key passage in the letter is, “some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another.” At the beginning of this year I thought I’d have a great tomato crop and I didn’t even think about cucumbers. Now I have canned cucumber pickles for the first time in 25 years, and linked myself to my grandmother Rhoda, who was a master pickler. The loss of small row crops in the Jefferson garden (hail, overly hot manure) was recompensed by the squashes, the gourds, and the watermelons, not to mention the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa corn.
As usual Jefferson was right.
Still, when I think of the amazing work you all do at Monticello, the great abundance of your harvests, the fact that it rains adequately to produce a wonderful garden, and the quality of the paid and volunteer staff who make the gardens flourish, I feel humbled and something of a failure.
But in pure Jeffersonian fashion I am already planning next year’s gardens. This much I can promise. The manure will be much better integrated into the 12 x 24 garden. I’m going to plant less corn and protect the spacing for my tomatoes better. I’m going to plant few or no large gourd crops, because they take up so much room. But I will plant cucumbers in the Jefferson garden.
In the larger garden, I will plant more than 50 garlic bulbs still this fall. I’m going to plant 15 hills of pickling cucumbers next spring, and fewer tomatoes, fewer rows of corn. I neglected such things as carrots, potatoes, and beets this year, and turnips, so I will plant these in greater profusion next year. I’m going to make another run at a 4 x 4 foot flax plot, and I am going to plant an equal square of wheat. I miss potatoes this year.
Meanwhile, I split my grandmother’s rhubarb plant into thirds, all of which are alive, two flourishing, and my colleague and friend Alison gave me one of her rhubarb bulb systems. So next year I will not only make many more rhubarb pies, but I’ll “put up” rhubard sauce for the first time.
I so wish I could be at the harvest festival, Pat, to hold up my puny and struggling abundance of produce to your great bounty. That always confirms Jefferson’s prejudice that he lived in a kind of garden of Eden at Monticello.
Say hello to everyone.