Book Review: A Rich Spot of Earth

Peter J. Hatch, formerly Director of Grounds, Monticello, Yale University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Ambra Edwards
A Rich Spot of Earth cover
A Rich Spot of Earth

For 58 years, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the USA and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, kept a garden book. In it he recorded in detail every aspect of sowing and harvesting the vegetables he grew in successive gardens, most significantly at the mountain-top garden he made at Monticello from the 1770s. Peter Hatch addresses his subject with the same exhaustive minuteness - but then this 1,000-foot vegetable plot has been his life. He has cared for it since he saw it reborn from wasteground in the 1980s.

Hatch begins with a flourish: he shows us an unrivalled 'collection of esculent talent, culled from virtually every western culture known at the time' (not to mention Native American and African slave culture). He identifies this garden melting pot as 'uniquely American in its scale, diversity, composition and experimental character.'

Jefferson is revealed as a horticultural pioneer, champion of the aubergine and tomato, peanuts and sesame, and also as America's first foodie, though the nation may not now thank him for introducing potato chips. He was a man of vast enthusiasms: he was fanatical about peas; sowed 'a thimble of lettuce' every Monday, and tried tarragon year after year, though it never grew for him. We learn that Michelle Obama's White House vegetable patch was inspired by Monticello, and Hatch can't resist letting slip he has been planting heirloom vegetables with the First Lady.

Visually, the book can be repetitious - there are only so many ways a long, thin plot can be photographed - but there is much interesting archive material, and pleasing vegetable still-lifes composed with the care of a Dutch master. Half the book is given to a compendium of the produce grown at Monticello, where Hatch earns top marks for his meticulous research, but no less for his entirely Jeffersonian paean to the tennis ball lettuce: 'a delicate buttery bowl of moist, vegetable bliss.'

Ambra Edwards, is an author and freelance garden writer. The article originally appeared in The American Gardener, American Horticultural Society.

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