Thomas Jefferson, Renaissance Man

I admit it, I am a Thomas Jefferson nut....No well known historical person has combined so many diverse talents as good ole'  T.J.  ( well, maybe his friend, Ben did...) Besides his leadership and writing acumen, Jefferson was a genius when it came to building design and, yes, gardening.

Jefferson took immense interest in architecture, city planning and landscape architecture. During his years as president, he assisted in the design of Washington, D.C. and his ideas for the city's layout were combined with those of Pierre L'Enfant who was hired to draw up the plans.

His finest achievement in site planning may be his plantation retreat, Poplar Forest, in Bedford county, Virginia.   Here, Jefferson used a single geometric form, the octagon, for the house and a circle for the surrounding landscape. He took advantage of the sloping terrain and built the octagonal building into the slope so that lower entrance opens directly onto the ground level and the upper level opens out to the higher ground on the other side.

You can now visit the restored 'villa retreat'  - please check out the website for a fascinating history of this wonderful place.

Jefferson created two artificial mounds on opposite sides of the house and planted trees on these hillocks to further envelope the house. The techniques Jefferson used in siting and manipulating the earth around the house were way ahead of his time!
Jefferson was also an ardent plant lover and a pioneer plant distributor. He collected exotic trees and shrubs and investigated new crops to grow in the United States. He sent rice to South Carolina and Georgia from his tour in Italy and, in time, it became a flourishing agricultural crop.

Additionally, Jefferson introduced the Pecan tree to the Southern U.S. by distributing the nuts and growing them in a special nursery.

A tribute that probably pleased Jefferson as much as any other was the naming of a native Virginia flower after him -  Jeffersonia diphylla. (Color Drawing: Wolcott, M.V. 1925. North American Wild Flowers. Smithsonian Institution. )
In their excellent book, 'Thomas Jefferson, Landscape Architect,' Frederick Doveton Nichols and Ralph E. Griswold summed up the man as landscape artist and planner:

"By applying his profound knowledge of nature and his intelligent observation of historic architecture, he was able to plan many houses and assist in the design of a state capitol, a federal city, and a university to fit the needs of our country. He was a pioneer of an art that united the natural landscape with architecture for the glory of a new nation."

Now, how many national politicians can do that today?


  1. Lovely post! With Jefferson's eye for symmetry, and the immaculate order of his gardens, I think he'd laugh at my garden if he were here today!

  2. he'd be too cool for that , probably make a wry comment though....

  3. I am also a TJ nut! :D For my upcoming birthday at the end of May, we're planning a trip up to Monticello. It's only about 4 1/2 hours away by car, so it's do-able. I can't wait! I may wear out an entire memory card on the gardens lol.

  4. PLease check out Poplar forest too! I went to Monticello for my honeymoon...drove there from New York...

    not as romantic as a beach getaway, I admit...

  5. aloha,

    thank you for the post, it was a great read!

  6. I've portrayed Thomas Jefferson professionally for almost 20 years, to convention audiences from Maine to Hawaii. The more I learn about this man (and I've learned a lot!), the more impressed I am!
    For those who are not familiar with one of his more famous gardening comments, let me share this, from a letter to C. W. Peale in 1811, when Jefferson was 68:
    "I have often thought that if Heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden … Under a total want of demand except for our family table, I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener."

  7. you must appear at a gardeners conference and share T.J., the young gardener, with all of us!!!


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