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`An old man, but a young gardener'

`JEFFERSON had a contest in spring to see who could bring the first English pea to the table," says Peter Hatch, director of grounds and gardens at Monticello. "The winner had the losers over for a community dinner."

If Jefferson had any excess, it was the way he cross-pollinated ideas, natural elements, and people: A garden pea became a contest, which became a community dinner, which became a delight.

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"No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden," Jefferson wrote in 1811. "Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one through the year. 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."

Jefferson had 5,000 acres including four satellite farms where wheat was grown. He often rode his horse Eagle around the grounds. He introduced rotation of crops and invented the "mouldboard plow" that featured a curved blade to ease the work for the animal pulling it. Instead of patenting the plow, with true democratic intent, he wanted it used widely, and freely sent diagrams of it to places as far away as France.

Jefferson's detailed book "Notes on The State of Virginia" was written in part to refute the claims of European scientists who said the plants, fruits, and animals of the new world were inferior to Europe's varieties.

Although he did eat meat, Jefferson wrote in 1819, "I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that ... as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet."

His garden was his laboratory. Over the years he experimented with 250 varieties of vegetables, 175 varieties of fruits including 38 varieties of peaches, and 15 varieties of lettuce. "His documentation of the garden is incredible," Mr. Hatch says, referring to Jefferson's garden book published in 1944 by the American Philosophical Society.

"He related to people by talking about gardening," Hatch says, "and many of his letters on the future of the republic he prefaced with comments about how his crops and plants were doing."

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