Thomas Jefferson tinkered with his garden until he died, although by 81 he had to admit he had been “worn down by time in bodily strength, unable to walk even in my garden without too much fatigue.” “Tinkered” suggests Jefferson’s ambitions were small, but his gardening ambitions matched his political ambitions. For years he tasked slaves to haul 600,000 cubic feet of earth and blast out bits of rock from his mountainside at Monticello to create a thousand-foot-long, terraced garden neatly partitioned into nine 100-foot sections, with footpaths between.
For Jefferson (and, famously, George Washington), putting his hands into a bit of earth (yes, despite the slaves Jefferson also worked the soil with his own hands) was a welcome respite from the enormous cares of creating and governing a new country. When he headed home after leaving the presidency, Jefferson wrote a friend, “Never did [a] prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.”
The American Founders had worked themselves almost to bits to create a country unique among those on the earth for its promise to secure to each man and woman the fruits of their labor. Often, especially until the farming revolution of the twentieth century, these included the literal fruits of honest work.
Cultivating My Bit of Earth and My Self
In America, people created government to handle common concerns such as national defense and foreign trade specifically to free individuals to pursue their happiness in myriad ways. These men saw politics as a necessary evil, something to clear the way for them and their children to enjoy peaceful private pursuits. Many notable Americans farmed and gardened as a way to pursue the good life, which of course included meeting their bodily needs but also others such as character-building and intellectual development. Indeed, many of the founders thought working with one’s hands was necessary to shape one’s character into the virtue required for American-style self-government.
Jefferson made no bones about it: “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness,” he said. As a wealthy landowner, he was freer from the drudgery working the earth requires than most people of his day, but modern America’s wealth is so great that even the poorest American can now emulate Jefferson, gardening for delight and self-reliance rather than economic necessity.
Besides cultivating happiness and wonder at the natural world, gardening also facilitates other very American traits. These include friendship, a love for the unusual and spectacular, reverence for hard work, a love of exploration, self-reliance and personal responsibility, good-natured competition, generosity, experimentation, openness to new cultures and ideas, optimism, humility about the limits of human potential, and a goodwill between generations.
Many of these virtues are slipping away from our culture, or transforming into defects, but gardening offers one small, simple way to begin reclaiming them. Let’s examine how.
Generating Friendships Near and Far
Jefferson—whom Wade Graham in “American Eden” says created the American “ur-garden” at Monticello—famously corresponded with friends across the globe, and exchanged hundreds if not thousands of seeds with them. He sent European friends American varieties, and they reciprocated with continental varieties. Remember, as C.S. Lewis noted, shared interests are the strongest food of friendship: “Friendship…is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .’”
Jefferson’s lifelong garden diary and letters show, writes former Monticello garden director Peter Hatch in “A Rich Spot of Earth,” “Jefferson used plants and gardens as a means of relating to friends, family, neighbors, and even political allies.” Hatch points to the Jefferson family’s spring pea competition with Charlottesville neighbors, in which whoever harvested the first spring pea served them at a community dinner he hosted, as “a poignant expression of how Jefferson used plants as a vehicle for social intercourse.”
Gardening also fosters cross-generational relationships and helps forge local and national identities, and it has done so from the earliest days of America. Jefferson tasked Merriweather Lewis and William Clark with cataloguing and preserving plants unique to the American continent. Americans of his day deliberately sought to develop and preserve the American identity and distinguish it from those of other nations in a sort of culture competition that prodded every person to be his best for the sake of his country. This included American science, of which botany was a foremost discipline.
Cultivating Family and Regional Heritage
Way back in the early 1800s, the legendary Alexis de Tocqueville considered America’s strong families the key to its social strength and vibrancy. Cultivating a bit of earth is one of the things families have done since the dawn of time. In a garden, a family can both work and play together, and in so doing forge a shared identity and history that enhances their biological ties.
Over many years of attentive cultivation, any person can develop the most productive and reliable plants for his local microclimate, then pass on the seeds and know-how to his children and neighbors. Americans have been doing just this for centuries.
“A lot of the reason people come to look for the heirloom varieties is the flavor or the sentimental value,” says Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. “‘I want to try something my grandma had,’ or ‘I want to try something from my culture.’ Gardening connects people to their families, to their grandparents and uncles.”
Gettle can walk into his numerous gardens, greenhouses, and fields and point to the varieties his family has now kept in trust for generations, handing down flavors and know-how. Each conjures individual and communal memories. Even if one never knew great-grandpa, one can eat the same tomatoes he did, and know it.
“I grew up in the Boise Valley, and my earliest memories [are] I was planting this with my grandmothers, my uncles were helping me harvest watermelons,” Gettle said. “That is a lot of times what gets people back into gardening. They go off to college, and when they get a little older and start families they think ‘We gotta have this for the kids.’”
Gettle now travels the world collecting thousands of varieties to share with customers and preserve for posterity. “Old-timers” regularly come into his seed store looking for seeds they knew as children.
One of his greatest joys is locating such varieties and putting them in people’s hands. In the Missouri Ozarks, where Gettle’s main operations nestle, the Millionaire tomato was a popular variety used in the canning industry. “Older gentlemen in their eighties” regularly canvassed Gettle’s store for the seeds, so he began asking around for it. About ten years ago, he did find it, just a few miles from Gettle’s Missouri store via another seed saver in Canada who had traded with the fellow.
“It was really exciting,” Gettle said. “People would tear up, they’d be so excited to find a Millionaire tomato. One man had driven three or four hours just to find out if we had had it.”
Gardening Develops Self-Reliance, Humility, and Work Ethic
Recently, historian, military adviser, classicist, and grape farmer Victor Davis Hanson discussed how living in the country versus living in the city influences Americans’ politics:
Rural living historically has encouraged independence—and it still does, even in the globalized and wired twenty-first century. Other people aren’t always around to ensure that water gets delivered (and drained), sewage disappears, and snow is removed…Such constant preparedness nurtures skeptical views about the role and size of government, in which the good citizen is defined as someone who can take care of himself…
As raising children does on a much deeper scale, gardening and farming makes you daily responsible to someone or something outside of yourself. Tomatoes get eaten by rats and insects, crowded out by weeds. To thrive, they need care. In providing that care, we become the kind of people who give the gift of ourselves. That kind of person is different from the person who spends his time thinking about satisfying chiefly himself and his own desires. To make a garden produce what you need, you have to give it what it needs. It’s a reciprocal relationship on a more personal scale than merely visiting a grocery store.
That commitment to something other than one’s self pulls out of a person other virtues, such as a work ethic, and humility before this world that, as Hanson expounds, recognizes it is imbued with great, untamable mysteries still. Some years, there’s so much rain your cucumbers are going to get mildewy. Others, insects are going to eat out the squashes. There is no mechanical push-button, get-response. There is only an unpredictable, yet glorious give and take. It’s an organic rather than mechanistic relationship, just like society.
This humility translates into a healthy, accurate skepticism about grand promises from social planners. If we can’t get tomatoes to consistently yield, how can we determine how much soda every person should be allowed to drink or square footage they should be allowed to live inside? How many children they should have or “processed food” they should consume? The urban world, where everything seems controllable, can give people the illusion that it’s possible or even desirable to micromanage life. Or, as Hanson writes:
Nature is not, as in the urbanist vision, the local well-manicured park flora or the evening weather forecast, but a brutal, uncaring world kept at bay with tractors, chainsaws, and sump pumps. It is omnipresent, omnipotent, and beautiful—but also deadly when it defeats our ability to control it. I have seen a lovely, blooming plum orchard lose its entire crop—and $50,000 of borrowed money—from a spectacular three-minute hailstorm amid a rainbow at sunset.
A Penchant for Welcoming—And Testing—New Ideas
Americans love novelty. Just check out the Internet to see the latest meme getting its 15 seconds of fame. This enthusiasm, even obsession, with the “new” translates into our gardening habits, where a commitment to living things tempers it into something more enduring. Gettle reports his most popular seeds are those for exotic plants like black tomatoes and purple carrots. Jefferson was a voracious seedster who meticulously documented his experiments with hundreds of varieties, typically selecting the variety he thought best and dousing the rest.
Just as America is a country comprised of expatriates, so were the plants Jefferson grew. His dispassionate, scientific bent made him anticipate the “useful” qualities of plants, just like a quintessentially practical, pragmatic American; but Jefferson also adored the feelings a lovely arrangement could summon, with also-American exuberance and sentimental gushing. He imported European seeds and plant cuttings, blending them with native varieties he eagerly commissioned from Lewis and Clark’s expedition into the newly expanded American West. Some thrived; others failed. Jefferson counted it all joy.
One of the great things about plants is that they forgive failure. If one won’t sprout, it costs $3 to try some different seeds next year. If the squashes don’t get pollinated this year, massive bean production will help make up for it. A rainy summer may mean mold on the tomatoes but happy potatoes and lettuce.
Americans’ generosity and welcoming spirit amplifies our love of new ideas and things, and will to transcend failure to celebrate our successes. We open our hearts and wallets quickly. That’s why, come spring, you see so many people zooming excitedly home, pickups and SUVs packed full after a greenhouse shopping spree. They’re overly optimistic, of course, but at least they’re optimistic. Americans are not by nature given to despair and stagnation. And neither is a garden.