A kind of artist

A summer day in the gardens at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, June 2014

A summer day in the gardens at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, June 2014

“We have neglected the truth that a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.”Wendell Berry

History tells us much about the wide-ranging though conflicted brilliance of Thomas Jefferson.  Aside from his celebrated love of books, farming may have been his greatest passion. He and his trusted gardener Wormley Hughes left a legacy of agricultural artistry at Monticello that still can be seen and felt today.

The five thousand acres of Monticello were home to an entire community of free and enslaved workers, and his gardens were “a kind of laboratory where Jefferson experimented with 330 varieties of more than seventy species of vegetables from around the world.”  Jefferson’s analytical skills and compulsive record-keeping documented years of success, failure and persistence that yielded food for the tables at Monticello and inspiration for generations of family farms and gardens.

Perhaps the unusually long life span of Jefferson and many of his enslaved collaborators are a testament to the benefits of a locally grown plant-based diet.  Most of the individuals we think of as “founding fathers” were also farmers, and probably we have as much to learn from their agrarian achievements as we have from their political deeds.

Whether or not you have space for a home vegetable garden, I encourage you to learn more about locally grown food.  The widespread rediscovery of family farms and gardens may ameliorate much of the emotional, environmental and physical damage done by our over-processed, mass-produced food supply that has largely separated us from the contact with nature that is healing on many different levels .

I’ve seen (and tasted) the benefits of home gardening, and I’m convinced Berry is right about the importance of small local farms to the overall good of society.  Like so many other urban and suburban people who get their fruits and veggies from the supermarket, I have a long way to go in putting this philosophy into practice, but I hope you will join me in moving in that direction.  Maybe we can start by planning a visit to an orchard or garden where we can pick our own food and experience firsthand the connection between its source and our table.

Do you grow anything edible?  If so, do you agree that there are benefits that go beyond the superior taste of home-grown food?  Feel free to inspire us with your experiences and advice!


One year ago today:

Designed by nature



  1. singleseatfighterpilot

    While others have thought of Jefferson immaculately dressed, white ruffled shirt, hair brushed and held in place with a queue; poring over a document, perhaps with quill in hand – – I fancy him in a straw hat, bouncing along on a red International Harvester Farm-All tractor, a wheat straw sticking out of the corner of his mouth.

    • I think Jefferson would be pleased to have you remember him that way. And he would be tinkering with that tractor, trying to figure out a way to customize it!

  2. bobmielke

    Since moving to the Northwest I stopped gardening. Back in South Carolina I had two 1,000 square foot gardens that provided for all my vegetables. I had such an abundance I kept a dozen families stocked with produce. I grew Big Boy, Better Boy and Beefsteak tomatoes the size of a saucer. My favorite vegetable is green beans and so picked a bushel each morning. I did my own canning as I had a storage room where I had built heavy duty shelves for my work. I also utilized a chest freezer in the same room of my house. I miss growing my own food as I’ve become spoiled by my own success at it.

    I don’t think I’ll ever get back into gardening because of my arthritis and lack of land. Everything is apartments and condos here in Portland, OR. It’s sad to know that 90% of our state’s population only lives on 10% of the land here that is rich in every way. It’s been said that to grow watermelons here all you need to do is spit out the seeds.

    • Bob, your gardens sound wonderful. I wish I could find someone to keep us stocked with produce! I’m sure there were a lot of kids who were far healthier because of your gardening. My parents have always had a chest freezer stocked from their garden and in past years, with deer from my Dad’s bow hunting. It does seem as if Oregon would be wonderful for gardening. Better even than the central coast of California, which fooled me into thinking I was good at it. When I was a kid I would always dream of saving watermelon seeds and growing them for my own watermelons, but nothing ever seemed to come of it. It would amaze me how one watermelon was filled with hundreds of seeds that just got thrown away. I agree that it is sad when all the population is concentrated in the cities. Maybe the combination of online and wireless technology, fuel prices, and environmental awareness will bring about a change that will see more people moving back into the rural areas and small towns. I hope so.

  3. I subscribe to an organic gardening magazine and have purchased several books on small space organic gardening, but have not moved past the research and planning stages.

    • You sound exactly like me. I have wonderful intentions. But truthfully, I find it inspiring and hopeful even to read about such things, so I think there is value in doing it even if it takes me awhile to get around to it! I was just reading yesterday about growing salad shoots. I might be able to handle something that small. Years ago when Jeff and I were first married I used to grow alfalfa sprouts and bean sprouts for salads. It was easy and fun.

      • singleseatfighterpilot

        Be sure to read “Eats Shoots and Leaves”. No; wait – that may be about Koala Bears and punctuation– not growing bean sprouts?

        • I gave that book to Carla and George for Christmas a few years ago. I have forgotten most of it, but I remember thinking it was hilarious (of course I read their copy before I sent it to them). No wonder I like to give books as gifts!

  4. Rene

    I dream of someday starting a container “salad garden,” but though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

    • Rene, same here! (See my comment to Yvonne.) Have you been considering growing salad shoots? If you want an easy thing to start with, try growing bean sprouts for stir-fry, or alfalfa sprouts for sandwiches and salads. They were all the rage for awhile, but then there were problems with e coli and salmonella (although probably not as much as with regular lettuce). I think you’d avoid most of the risk of that if you grew your own. I’ve thought of growing fresh herbs. I’ll let you know if I ever get started!

  5. Amy

    One of my favorite Garrison Keilor lines is, “The tomatoes you get in the winter are not real tomatoes, they are strip mined in Texas.” (or something close to that) Nothing beats homegrown tomatoes. I don’t grow them but I thought about trying the bag that you hang upside down. If I ever do I’ll let you know how my tomatoes are. In the mean time I have to keep going to the farmers market in the summer and eating the ones strip mined in winter. Thanks for sharing this. Love to your boys. A

    • That’s a hilarious line, and so perfect. I tried the upside down bag on our deck here in Alexandria. The plant flourished, but the acrobatic squirrels got to every single tomato before it ripened! I never knew squirrels ate tomatoes until we moved to Virginia. If you do try it, you will need to hang it too high for the deer to reach! Hope to see you soon so we can catch up on all the chat.

  6. MaryAnn

    My nieces, who you know well, own a bakery in Austin, TX. EdieAnn & Stephanie strongly believe: “fresh is best”. They use all locally grown produce & ingredients in their baked goods. They even make their own vanilla! Whoa! Sounds like pioneer women!
    Yesterday, I ate some tomatoes grown by our friend, Terri Wallacker. I ate them by the handfuls, saying “these taste like candy”. I agree with you, Julia, eating the food in its natural state is much more healthy. After we max out on homegrown tomatoes, we will eat some of those beautiful strawberries you photographed for us!

    • I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to make my own vanilla! That’s impressive! I wish Terry could send us some of her tomatoes! I can’t eat them without thinking of Sean M – he’s the only person I ever knew who loved them more than I do! He really DID eat them like candy! You live in a wonderful place where “eating local” is possible for almost everything edible. I might never have come to love fruit as much as I do if I had not lived in CA.

  7. Sheila

    For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land. A land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you shall eat food without scarcity, in which you shall not lack anything. Deuteronomy 8: 7-9
    As I was looking for a recipe today in an Episcopal Church Women cookbook, I read this scripture in the margin and thought it rather fitting for your words today. I only have one vegetable plant and I’m not sure that constitutes a garden but the green peppers that it’s bearing are just wonderful! 🙂 It should be thriving after the afternoon showers. Love, Sheila

    • Sheila, that’s a beautiful verse and so perfect for a cookbook! If you could only grow one plant, a green pepper is a good one to choose. They are nutritional powerhouses. I used to add them to almost everything I cooked, and Drew used to joke about how everything we ate had green peppers in it. I guess it was really more of a complaint than a joke. To this day I always get them on my pizza. I use them for stir fry, casseroles, etc. but also when I am chopping them I end up eating them raw. I should emphasize here I’m talking about bell peppers, not HOT ones! 😀 We’ve got rain here today, too. Those fall colors are in the formation stage!

  8. LB

    Does my HUGE basil plant count??? Someday I hope to grow more than basil … 🙂 … but for now, it keeps me happy!

    • It TOTALLY counts! I love basil and it was the first herb I ever learned to use in cooking. My friend Nancy showed me how to use it to make green beans taste way better. I used to fix them that way for Jeff when we were dating. But I didn’t use fresh, which I bet would be so much better. Maybe I should start with basil when I finally get around to my good intentions for edible gardening!

  9. Good morning! I have a struggling balcony garden here in New Hampshire. If the tomato plant even makes it, I’m not sure it will bear, and all but one small stem of basil died. So much for the fresh caprese saled. I have used the chives and cilantro, however.
    It doesn’t help that I keep abandoning them for weekends in Minnesota, where my rhubarb has found new freedom and is trading over everything! I’m guessing successful gardeners don’t travel much. 🙂

    • Susan, our travels have killed more thriving plants than I like to think about! We try to make provisions for them but sometimes we miscalculate how long they can go without attention, and sometimes we forget to make sure they are watered at all. Maybe I will try some chives too. I’m not a cilantro person but it is said to be quite healthy so I’m developing a grudging taste for it. Jeff and Matt like it so it would be worth trying to grow. Keep trying with the balcony garden! I have found that gardening is worth it for me even if only 10% of what I do yields good results – because the good results are so much fun! I guess that is how some people see golf.

  10. We had our first bumper crop of apricots and plums this summer. I devoured apricots for days, but within a few weeks they were gone. I bought some at the store yesterday, took a large bite with the same anticipation, and oh, what a disappointment. It was hard and flavorless even though it looked and felt ripe from the outside.

    Home grown and farmer’s markets all the way.

    • Alys, nectarines became my favorite fruit the day I bought one from a farmer’s stand near San Luis Obispo many years ago. I don’t know if I’ve ever tasted anything better in my life. Years later when we got orders to move to northern California from San Antonio, I was heartbroken at leaving a place I had come to love dearly, but one of the first things I thought of were the delicious locally-grown fruits and vegetables we would enjoy again. I have mixed luck with the nectarines that come from the grocery here, but I don’t know of anywhere they are grown locally, so that has to suffice. It amazes me the difference in quality even among the grocery store variety. I’m gradually learning how to pick the good ones (as I learned to choose pineapple in Hawaii) but it’s far from foolproof; there’s always an unknown in terms how the texture and flavor will actually be. Home grown never disappoints, assuming you can get to it before the critters do!

  11. raynard

    Julia I had to clean up my junk mail along with” downloading a sample book to see “that i missed this one. Never gave much thought to eating home grown( not supermarketish foods)Just read your comment about Hawaii. I remember when the Dole trucks use to pass me by on the highway( H-1 0r 2) and it smelled so good.. be blessed

    • Raynard, people who grow up in big cities like NYC probably don’t get much opportunity to compare the difference. On one of your trips to NC or Pennsylvania (or even where you live in Delaware) I imagine you might find lots of places to get some fresh, locally grown things, though you have to watch it closely since I’m told some people set up “fresh from the farm” stands that sell basically the same stuff you get in the supermarket. But I’m still thankful for supermarket supplies of fresh fruits and veggies from wherever, since not everything is easily available locally. I’ve been binging on cherries lately (no pun intended; “binge” not “bing”) and they are delicious, even from the supermarket!

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