To Be Changed – Road to Monticello

with Jacqueline Hériteau

We wander through the gardens at Brookside and the American Horticultural Society’s River Farm to smell the roses and gather beauty secrets — like how tying asters together with soft twine makes a statement in height and color — and how a fountain of tall variegated grasses can soften a brick corner.

Walking the grounds at Monticello you have an experience of a different order. Yes, on a clear day the 360-degree view from Thomas Jefferson’s “little mountain” is extraordinary. Yes, the 1,000-foot long vegetable terrace is an ode to the beauty of beans staked on weathered poles, to silver artichokes, aromatic herbs, and to the talent of its present curator, Maggie Stemann. Yes, this exquisite little mansion is beautifully restored, and the gift shop has been stocked with taste.

But one of many very special aspects of Monticello is the visitor’s awareness that it is still becoming what it once was. This is a living, growing garden, not an artifact frozen in time. Both researchers and the gardeners study Jefferson writings as they amplify the restoration of the 200-year-old gardens and search for old-fashioned plant varieties.

So – ambling along the wooden terrace you find yourself trying to decide what Jefferson had chosen as the perfect spot for a long-vanished grove of trees they hope to replant. With something of his intensity, you query heirloom flowers he tried in the experimental beds by the dining room. Most of his seeds would have come from neighbors and distant friends. Garden markets were two centuries ahead in time, as were supermarkets and butcher shops.

Understandably, this pioneer’s first need was for a vegetable garden. Jefferson sited it on a long narrow terrace overlooking the rolling Piedmont countryside, and made it a work of art. Hewed from the side of the mountain, the terrace is supported by a massive and beautiful stone wall. At the foot of the wall there’s a thicket of fig trees. On the grassy slope below, Jefferson’s orchard has been replanted — peaches, I seem to recall, cherries, and apples. Seen from above in spring, Jefferson’s orchard must have been a froth of pink and white blossoms.

I sat with my husband, Earl Hubbard, on a weathered gray bench under an apple tree looking up at the great stone wall and the little garden pavilion that rests on it. The pavilion was a quiet retreat where, we had been told, Jefferson read in the evening. We got to wondering….was he reading by candlelight or twilight? Was he escaping from the happy ruckus made by the eleven grandchildren who shared this mansion of rather modest size? Did he pen his Garden Book in that pavilion?

Jefferson wrote: “The greatest service which can be rendered (any country) is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

When Jefferson spoke of his “garden”, like other early Americans he wasn’t referring to a manicured estate. He was referring to that two-acre vegetable garden, a laboratory where he investigated 250 varieties of more than 70 vegetables. Summer and winter, it was his major source of supply. Among the privileges of Jefferson’s high estate was the responsibility to provide food and shelter for those who labored to carve his property from the North American jungle.

Today the jungle laps at the edges of Monticello just as it did when Jefferson first cleared it. Valley views that once allowed Jefferson to monitor the daily construction of his beloved University of Virginia now must constantly be cleared of the ever-encroaching forest. Charlottesville and the Saturday afternoon football games are down there somewhere, but saplings and underbrush are everywhere present, waiting for another turn at Monticello.

We came away from Monticello very much moved by Jefferson’s profound commitment to perfection and wholeness. This exquisite place conveys Jefferson’s abiding loves: his faith in the elegant culture he encountered during his tour as our Minister to France; and his reverence for the simple, powerful principles that govern the earth. This home and this garden were established by a caring genius committed to the wholeness of the American spirit he had defined and helped to articulate in the Declaration of Independence.

We are his heirs. How fortunate we are!

The standards expressed in the house and grounds at Monticello have had a profound impact on Charlottesville and its people. An example is the architecture of the Information Center at the foot of the hill. Across Route 20, the long, low building nestled into a rise was designed along lines established by a latter day American genius, Frank Lloyd Wright. Another example is the exquisite taste and attention to detail and comfort in the home of long-time Board Member George Palmer, and his wife Susanne. “To be associated with Monticello is to be changed,” Sue says. To be changed is the gift offered to us by the best of our public homes and gardens.

I’d love to go back to Monticello now as the foliage on the slopes turns to gold, and mist feathers the valleys in the late afternoon. I think this is the most likely season for the great man’s spirit to walk tall along the terraces — planning his grove, the collection of seeds for next year’s planting, the drying of beans for winter soups.

The pleasant way to reach Monticello from Washington is to take #66, then Route 29 South at Gainesville. Follow it around Warrenton where it becomes Route 29/15. Charlottesville is less than two hours south through rolling green hills. At the approach to Charlottesville there’s a four-mile strip under construction. A little beyond that turn onto Route 64 East, then take Route 20 South, then that Route 53 leading up to Monticello. A neat place for a simple family meal is Michie’s Tavern, about half way up the hill. Don’t miss the Plant Shop located in the yellow and white striped tent at the Monticello Shuttle Station. It sells herbs, perennial vegetables, and heirloom seeds. You can plant Jeffersonians! Monticello is open year round except for Christmas day — the hours March through October are 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. from November till February the hours are 9 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. Call (804) 984-9822 for special events information. Daily Garden Tours and Daily Plantation Tours will end October 31.

What you have in your mind?