In her 2011 book, Founding Gardeners, British author and design historian Andrea Wulf indulges her personal curiosity about the connection between America’s political origins and its early leaders’ extensive and magnificent gardens. Her colorful exploration suggests that the evolution of agriculture and botany in the U.S. go hand in hand with the patriotic visions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams.
Wulf’s depiction of these founding farmers is at once nostalgic and heartening, particularly given more citizen involvement in farming and a greater focus on the value of the natural world. The founding gardeners’ emphasis on simple living and self-sufficiency is a priority in the food movement today as well–a relevant reaction to the fear of an industrialized economy that drives Americans to extravagant lifestyles born of capitalistic inflation.
But fear is relative to the altruistic and visionary perspective that Wulf offers on these politicians. The gardens of Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are depicted as havens and respites from the stress of war, the strife of partisan disputes, and the drudgery of political life. Garden beds and political agendas merge into one identity and native plants become the centerpiece for the founding gardeners’ display of American patriotism.
Drawing design and layout inspiration from England’s famous gardens like Kew and Stowe–which were, ironically enough filled with American varietals after the American Revolution–Adams and Jefferson vowed to create distinctly different gardens from those of the country that once ruled them. Less orderly and defined by their variety, the gardens of the American leaders defied British control and influence through a display of native plants and shrubbery.
As Wulf defines the early American landscape through its plant life, she acknowledges that the terminology around “gardening” and “farmer” is nebulous and self-selective as the founding fathers were by no means farmers by profession. Nor did their lands all yield food. Among the four men, Adams appears to be most deserving of the title “farmer” as we would define it today, as he cultivated produce on his land well into his retirement from political life.
It is difficult to determine to what extent this history can be more romantically understood because of many present-day efforts to improve the quality, context, and understanding of the country’s food systems. The story’s wholesome, conscientious aura likely has as much to do current trends toward more localized agriculture and intentionality about food choices, as it has to do with the political trailblazers’ foresight for the farming future of this country.