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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Politics, Gardening and the Founding Fathers

On vacation in the Pacific Northwest until  after May first. Apologies to devoted readers for only one blog this month, rather than the usual two.
 Reading  Founding Gardeners©  by  Andrea Wulf. She has also written another unusual book about American gardens and gardeners Gardening Neighbors© about the extraordinary Bartram family and how their efforts resulted in an explosion of American trees in the English landscape gardening.

Bartram House
Bartram garden

Actually recommended, is reading the Bartram book first, then the Founding Gardeners—but either way you’ll be engaged  Wulf’s research. (her credentials are outstanding --- see

 Who knew that their view’s about gardens and farms so deeply influenced the politics of Washington, Adams and Jefferson? Or, that in the thinking of the first three, Alexander Hamilton, with his passion for industry, urbanization and trade, figured as clear and present danger to the infant U.S. ?

 Or who knew  that  George Washington  managed to run his plantation (by weekly letters to his farm manager) and  bring Mount Vernon through the Revolution in exemplary shape, whereas the brilliant but erratic Jefferson let his plantation, Monticello, fall  almost into ruin during the same period, simply by not paying enough attention to it . (See  
American Sphinx).

 An unsung hero of the ecological movement appears in the person of  James Madison. During  his  retired years , Madison became an authority on the relationship of planting practices and sustainable agriculture. The state of Virginia had, this early (1820s) exhausted some of the world's most fertile farmland, growing tobacco. Europeans, with much less land at their disposal, had learned to rotate crops and manure their fields. Apparently everybody forgot what had been painfully learned in Europe. American let their grazing animals wander in the woods, so the manure wasn't available for the fields. Crop rotation was a forgotten art. Infertile fields were the result. Small farmers just moved on West, but plantation owners like Madison didn't fancy uprooting their establishments, so they had to re- learn  sustainable farming.

 Madison's Montpelier had existed since the 18th  century (before 1723) and he wasn't about to abandon it and move west.

Madison of Montpelier reveals himself as not only a passionate gardener, but an enormously effective and dedicated servant of the new country. His wife, the redoubtable and charming Dolly, called him “mighty little Madison.


John Adams reveals an interest in compost and and manuring that would make him the darling of today’s organic gardeners . Adams had a small farm he worked himself, the other three founders were then owners of enormous plantations worked by slaves. Adams emerges as fairly impossible personally, but at the same time, admirable. (the miniseries  John Adams on HBO, not only well-acted but gives a sympathetic view of Adams dedicated, stubborn, prickly and egotistical character, but not his gardening experience.) Actually, his wife  Abagail Adams was the one who ran the farm while Adams was kept away for many years by the demands of the new nation. 

Fascinating sidelights kept turning  up in Founding Gardeners---  try it, you'll like it.

Note: Jefferson, as most of my well-informed readers know, had an unacknowledged  mistress, Sally  Hemings, who was 1) a slave of mixed race 2) his dead wife's 1/2 sister since they had the same father. Sally Hemings bore Jefferson 6 children, two of whom he freed. The rest helped build Monticello. Sally Hemings was left a slave in Jefferson's will.

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