This has been the summer of visiting great American gardens! I enjoyed a long visit to George Washington’s homestead at Mount Vernon earlier this summer. On our recent drive West, we made a stop in Virginia to see Thomas Jefferson’s estate – beautiful Monticello.

It is difficult to compare the two estates because they are so different. I think Mount Vernon was more interesting in terms of understanding how a working farm functioned back in the 1800′s. Washington was a farmer above all else. Monticello was more interesting in terms of the architecture of the house and ornamental value of the flower and vegetable gardens.

Jefferson designed his house, with the kitchen and store rooms located below the house. Meals can be prepared out of sight and sent up to the dining room through dumbwaiters. Also, servants could move between work areas out of the rain through covered hallways.

There are lovely, ornamental flowers planted outside Monticello around the edges of a large lawn. This crazy flower pictured above is Cockscomb, or Celosia cristata. They have huge magenta heads that are dense – like someone gathered thick velvet into a fabric flower. I bought a packet of seeds at the gift shop afterward and we will see how they grow in Oregon.

I spent the most time in the vegetable garden nearest the house, where Jefferson gardened for fun. I think he was really more of a gardener than a farmer – puttering more than hard laboring.

The rustic simplicity of the garden was refreshing. It was a beautiful, cool day -  the perfect time to enjoy long garden walks.

There is a little outdoor room pictured above, right at the end of the garden. It looks out onto the forests and hills surrounding the estate. It has a roof and windows, which can be opened. Such a lovely idea and probably a great place to enjoy the garden while it’s raining.

Jefferson was an experimenter. He was intent on growing crops that could make the US self-sufficient. At that time, it was really trial and error to see what European crops could grow in the US. Jefferson fell in love with wine while living abroad, so he had grapes sent from Europe to plant a vineyard. Unfortunately, they did not do well. He had them replanted seven times! Some still remain – I forget the variety – but most never took off in Virginia.

It was a beautiful place to spend the day and I recommend visiting if you are in the area. It’s a bit pricey, somewhere around twenty bucks, but it’s always fun to get inspiration from other classic gardens.

If you visit in August, I highly recommend walking through the fruit orchard down below the vegetable garden. There were about a dozen ripe fig trees that no one was apparently picking, so Jay and I stuffed ourselves before heading out. Sweet figs on a cool summer day was a wonderful way to experience Monticello.

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