Dear Mr. Jefferson: Letters from a Nantucket Gardener

Dear Mr. Jefferson: Letters from a Nantucket Gardener

by Laura Simon

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"No occupation is so delightful to me as the culure of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden."
--Thomas Jefferson

An 18th-century statesman, a thoroughly modern gardener, a slightly one-sided correspondence on seeds, soil and the art of living...

For years, novelist Laura Simon had been building a garden around her

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"No occupation is so delightful to me as the culure of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden."
--Thomas Jefferson

An 18th-century statesman, a thoroughly modern gardener, a slightly one-sided correspondence on seeds, soil and the art of living...

For years, novelist Laura Simon had been building a garden around her Nantucket home, nurturing onions from wispy, pungent seedlings, spreading manure in early spring, harvesting in fall.  And with the passage of time, she longed for a correspondent with whom to exchange reflections on seeds and soil, to share her stories and her passion for gardening.  Unable to find such a person, Ms. Simon turned to the works of the eighteenth-century statesman and avid horticulturist Thomas Jefferson.  Thus began an only slightly one-sided correspondence between Ms. Simon and the Monticello gardener himself.  Interweaving her own observations about past and present with selected passages from Jefferson's writings, Simon has crafted a true epistolary adventure, filled with history and humor, a literate guide to gardening--and living a well-cultivated life.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Pollan
...[A]n avid testament by a confirmed yet highly knowledgeable amateur...The historical passages are swift, sure-footed and fascinating.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Simon's imaginary correspondence with Thomas Jefferson about her horticultural efforts on Nantucket, where she has lived for the past 25 years, is a diverting hybrid just right for gardeners interested in history and historians interested in gardening. Whether telling Jefferson about her own life or sharing her thoughts about seed propagation, garden design and heirloom vegetables, Simon does a terrific job of replicating the pleasures of 18th-century epistolary prose, an elegant language that sports lively digressions and tangents. Though the correspondence is one-sided, readers gain an appreciation for Jefferson, a passionate gardener himself, through tidbits about his plantation at Monticello and well-placed quotes from his diaries and letters. Much of the entertainment comes from Simon's attempts to update the founding father on the evolution not only of horticulture but of American civilization: "In the supermarket we were able to give full expression to another national trait. Our admiration of hugeness.... You could slide Monticello between the dairy cases and the dog food aisle of the average Stop & Shop." She offers bracingly opinionated comments about topics such as daffodil breeding: "I like pink flowers even more than I don't like yellow ones, but pink has no business intruding on daffodil territory." Filled with quirky facts from gardening's vast history, as well as updates on progress in Simon's own backyard, this is the mature fruit of a well-seasoned gardener, an engaging work that deserves a spot of honor on every gardener's nightstand.
Library Journal - Library Journal
When garden writer Simon failed to find a communication outlet for her extensive interest in gardening, she decided to express her thoughts through letters. And what better recipient than the historical gardening enthusiast Thomas Jefferson? These engaging "letters," written during the course of a year from Simon's Nantucket garden, range from such topics as the demise of the kitchen garden in America to a fascinating account of the evolution of the seed catalog. Simon is also effective in using Jefferson's own writings to discuss how things have changed since his day. Whether extolling the benefits of manure or praising asparagus, Simon clearly shows a passion for gardening. Gardening fans will really love this book.
— Phillip Oliver, Univ. of North Alabama Lib., Florence

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.94(w) x 7.43(h) x 0.61(d)

Read an Excerpt

I'll admit it's a bit of a conceit, this business of writing letters to Thomas Jefferson, but it's not as capricious as it sounds.

In the very beginning, I was simply seeking a means of communication, a way of expressing the gardening thrall I'd suddenly found myself in. I wanted to talk shop, to discuss soil filth and tillage, to compare varieties of carrots, and to analyze the relative merits of manure. I wanted to brag about getting rosemary seeds to sprout, a notoriously difficult feat, and to bemoan my continuing bad luck with the seeds of cleome. I wanted to rhapsodize about the sublime anticipation of winter planning and spring planting, to report on the great triumphs, and crushing disappointments, of summer. No question about it, my comments and observations had outgrown my gardening calendar and clipboards of lists and were similarly overfilling the spiral-bound notepad I'd added on as an auxiliary measure.

It started with an idle thought on a January evening, an evening that was in no way unusual for Nantucket in the winter, being bleak and raw with the wind yowling off the Atlantic Ocean.

I was sitting, as I often am on such evenings, hard by the woodstove, my feet buried beneath a dog, a stack of seed catalogs at my side. When the thought occurred, I was thumbing through a catalog from a company called Totally Tomatoes, rather new on the market and boasting a startling two hundred and seventy-nine varieties of tomatoes. The first one was called 'Abraham Lincoln'. A hundred and fifty varieties later there was a 'Jeff Davis'. Several minor celebrities and a saint were listed in between.

Why wasn't there a 'Thomas Jefferson'? I wondered. After all, went my musing, popular history has it that he brought the tomato to America. That it was Thomas Jefferson who, at the dawn of our republic, convinced his fellow countrymen that tomatoes weren't poisonous.

Then another thought struck me. What if Thomas Jefferson wasn't, in fact, responsible for promoting tomato consumption? What if this charming snippet of American mythology was just that, a myth? Or what if it wasn't even a myth? What if it was just a case of information being misfiled in my brain?

It still being winter, with few gardening demands, I resolved to track down the truth about the tomato. In the course of my research, I came across enough references to Thomas Jefferson and tomatoes to make my initial indignation seem warranted. Although he may not have been the only early champion of tomatoes, he was certainly one of the most influential and, unquestionably, deserving of having a tomato named in his honor. The real discovery, though, was that he was deserving of having so many more vegetables and flowers and trees named in his honor. The phrase "avid gardener" scarcely did him justice.

"[T]here is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me," he once wrote to his daughter Martha. It didn't take me much reading to realize that wasn't an insincere boast or just a pretty turn of words. There wasn't anything that grew that didn't seem to fascinate him. And tempt him to try it at Monticello, his mountaintop plantation a few miles south of Charlottesville, Virginia.

It was his pursuit of that temptation, though, that took my breath away. How in the days, long before mail-order nursery catalogs, or even reliable mail, he corresponded with friends and acquaintances all over the fledging United States and throughout Europe as well, exhorting them to send him saplings and seeds and roots. How he dispatched his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, on an expedition into the vast, unknown West. Lewis's mission, undertaken with William Clark--to observe the natural and to bring back botanical specimens--may well be the ultimate plant order.

It went on. How he imported grapes from Italy. And the vintners to go with them. Along with broccoli and eggplant and radicchio. Radicchio! How he coddled French figs, sent to Mexico for peppers, and filled an, eighteen-acre grove with dozens of kinds of trees.

The face in the painting took on flesh with fair skin that burned and peeled "on exposure to the sun . . . giving it a tattered appearance," as his grandson described it. He suddenly seemed so real. It was easy to imagine him at Monticello, striding, stooping, examining, just like anyone else, suffering sunburn for the sake of his 'Tennis Ball' lettuce or his sugar maple experiment.

It was somewhere around this time that I began to hear my own voice, tossing small remarks his way. In the third person, of course. After all, I wasn't crazy.

I found myself wanting to, well, compare notes. With Thomas Jefferson. His marvel and delight were so similar to my own, several centuries later, that I wanted to find out what it was like when he visited Italy and to fill him in on the way it is now.

"If you were there in April," I would say, for example, "were the almond trees still in bloom? Were the tops of the hills lost in clouds of almond blossoms?"

A moment later I would add, "Speaking of almonds, did anyone offer you a glass of Amaretto? They make it right there in Saronno, you know, not twenty miles from where you were gathering rice."

I stuck a piece of paper in the typewriter and hammered out a letter. "Dear Mr. Jefferson," it began. I started out telling him about a map I'd just drawn, but wandered off on a dozen tangents before I got back to the point and wrapped it up. I signed off with a phrase I borrowed from him, a phrase whose eighteenth-century civility remains unmatched today.

If I felt a tad ridiculous when I started the letter, by the time I got to the signature, I felt on top of the world. There it: was. I had my pen pal. And it was every bit as satisfying as I'd once imagined. What better way to chase post-frost depression than by writing about my garden. And about his. About how they tasted and smelled and what they meant. About gardens in general. About gardens in history. About the history of gardens. And their future.

My letters and comments continued all season, through the full cycle of the garden, from penciled plan to the doorstep of harvest. Neither conversation nor correspondence, they weren't a soliloquy either. Very decidedly, they were addressed to Mr. Jefferson. If he hadn't been at the other end of my thoughts, cultivating radicchio and tomatoes, journeying over the Alps in search of rice, fair skin tattered from the sun, very decidedly, those thoughts would have gone unsaid.

Okay. Maybe I am crazy. Maybe I'm hearing voices and writing to ghosts. But I still say that if this is a conceit, it isn't a caprice. It came about gradually, evolving naturally, and the first thing that every gardener learns is that Nature is a force you can't ignore.

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