A Rich Spot of Earth by Peter Hatch is a two part study of the kitchen gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The first half of the book focuses on the history of the Monticello gardens. With extensive research and years of firsthand experience behind him, Hatch discusses in detail Jefferson’s construction of the original gardens. He follows them through their prime working years during Jefferson’s presidency and subsequent retirement. We learn about Jefferson’s intimate relationship with his garden, as well as many of the key people that built, maintained, and tended it for him. The author also examines the gardening culture of the time, and relates Jefferson and Monticello to a number of their Virginian contemporaries. As we come to find out, Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic and scientifically minded gardener for his era, and was no stranger to horticultural experimentation.
The first act concludes with an overview of the modern day reconstruction of the Jefferson gardens, and we get a feel for their role in the restored Monticello of today.
“A Catalog of Selected Monticello Vegetables” makes up the latter half of the book. In this section we learn about many of the “fruits, roots, and leaves” from the original Monticello crops, and how each factored into Jefferson’s master plans for his gardens. Hatch also covers in significant depth the availability and popularity of these plants in Jefferson’s day, and the cultural attitudes around them.
The entire book is beautifully illustrated with full color photos from the Monticello gardens and many of the varied produce therein. Hatch is perhaps the ultimate authority on the site, given his tenure there, but the text is also thoroughly and extensively referenced. It’s a highly informative work from a historical perspective, and it left me reconsidering my notions of life in the colonial days. It certainly also gives a different view of Jefferson than one is likely to find in a classroom textbook. Aside from the educational value, I found the author’s enthusiasm for the subject matter to be inspirational with my own (much smaller scale) home gardening ventures.
I read the book cover to cover, but I must admit that I found some parts, particularly in the second half, a little tedious. Hatch tends to focus heavily on the historical context, discussing not only Jefferson’s yearly plantings, but also on the activities of a number of his less famous peers. I would have loved to learn a bit more about horticulture and the different vegetable species, or even the unique recipes of the day, instead. Discussing who planted which bean and in what quantity may have raw historical documentary value, but I couldn’t help finding it a little dry.
All in all, A Rich Spot of Earth is visually charming. It will make you want to get out and garden, and maybe plan a trip to Monticello on the weekend. It’s clearly a work of love by Peter Hatch, and it deserves to be recognized as a scholarly effort by an individual who is without doubt a great authority on the subject matter. A slam dunk for the home gardener meets history buff.