How Monticello Works

Monticello's Grounds
The pond on Monticello's lawn stored live fish for food.
The pond on Monticello's lawn stored live fish for food.
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Jefferson turned to nature as an escape from politics and other burdensome responsibilities. He used his land for many projects, like gardening, farming, winemaking and as we'll learn a little later, even a small industry.

For a man who was so fond of record-keeping and experimenting, gardening was a perfect outlet. He grew numerous vegetables that sustained his mostly vegetarian diet. Among the most plentiful were beans and peas -- he grew at least 35 varieties of legumes. Jefferson also experimented with foreign seeds like French figs, Italian broccoli, Mexican peppers and specimens gathered on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Though he tried growing many types of vegetables, he relied on a kind of Darwinian principle to plan future garden plots, commenting that only the best crops would be replanted and that others would be discontinued to "avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy" [source: Jefferson: the Scientist and Gardener].

As with so many elements of Monticello, the garden was meant to be practical as well as beautiful. Jefferson planted some flowers, trees and crops to add colorful variety and graceful, shady canopies. He spent a lot of time in his gardens making notes about his plants' progress. He used a handheld notebook to record observations about temperature, wind, rain, animal behavior and the status of his crops.

In lieu of walking, Jefferson sometimes rode in a gig seat to cover the plantation's terrain.
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Jefferson also tried his hand at winemaking at Monticello. While he had success with his imported vegetables, he didn't have much luck with the European grapes he tried to grow in the Virginian soil. Still, he approached the task with the zeal he brought to all of his projects. In 1807, he planted 287 grape vines and 24 specimens of European grapes -- and none produced viable results [source: The Vineyards]. But Jefferson wasn't discouraged, even when his efforts with American grapes didn't yield his desired results.

His interest in farming and meteorology gave rise to two of his inventions: the moldboard of least resistance and the spherical sundial.

The moldboard of least resistance was a component of a plow. The moldboard of a plow is what shakes and churns the soil as the plow digs. Jefferson's moldboard was an improvement on previous designs because it was so lightweight. He claimed that "two small horses or mules" could use it to plow rather than using an entire team of horses.


As if his custom clocks weren't enough to gauge time at Monticello, Jefferson devised a spherical sundial. Unlike most sundials, which are flat discs, Jefferson's was crafted from a column and a sturdy round ball. Like a typical globe, the ball was marked north and south, and intersecting meridians represented the hours of the day. One meridian was made from a strip of iron and attached to the north and south poles of the sphere. To tell time, Jefferson adjusted this piece to the point where its shadow was the smallest [source: Monticello Newsletter]. This point was the hour.

A wheel cipher was a third invention of Jefferson's. It consisted of 26 lettered disks held together with an iron rod. Soldiers in the Revolutionary War used it to code and decode secret messages. (You can read more about the wheel cipher and other ciphering machines in How Code Breakers Work.)

Of course, the plantation extended far beyond Jefferson's pea gardens and his sundial. In the next section, we'll examine the most controversial part of the plantation: Jefferson's slaves.