Last week was the “Average last frost” week in Kansas. Guess what Mother Nature brought us?
So the main purpose of the trip was to visit Polyface Farms. Turns out that Monticello is not very far away. In an amazing coincidence Miss Mercy was at a Master Gardener presentation on Presidential gardens and Monticello was part of the presentation. A text to the Mad Farmer went “want to add the Monticello gardens to our trip” and the answer back was “Yeah” (or something similar to that exchange, it has been a while but you get the gist). So Monticello was added to the itinerary.
Monticello is an amazing place. Multiple times it was relayed to visitors on the tour groups at Thomas Jefferson was a type of Renaissance Man but also a product of his times. Thomas Jefferson did many amazing things, including drafting the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson also owned over 600 slaves during the course of his life. While Jefferson professed he did not believe in slavery he was never able to reconcile the economics of slavery with freeing his slaves. It appears the only slaves he ever actually freed were the children he had with his slave mistress, Sallie Hemmings. The Mad Farmer is not the person to be able to reconcile all the good Jefferson did, all the amazing things he did and the horrible institution of treating people like property. So, we’ll leave that to history, profess it’s beyond the Farmer’s comprehension and move on to Monticello itself.
Jefferson designed Monticello himself and there are many European influences in the architecture. On the House tour we were told that there were two phases to the building. Originally there was a first floor with eight rooms and eventually, after many years of construction, the 2nd floor and 3rd floor dome were completed. Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer took the evening house tour – we highly recommend it. The evening tour starts at about 5:30 pm and lasts until about 8 pm. You can arrive at Monticello as soon as it opens and spend the day taking tours and wandering the grounds until the evening tour. The daytime house tours usually only cover the ground floor. The evening tour is a smaller group, covers all the floors from the dome to the basement and is very informative.
We arrived about 11 am and ended up taking the Garden Tour, the Slavery Tour and exploring the grounds for the rest of the day. Jefferson apparently never met a growing thing he didn’t love. Trees, flowers, plants and vegetables were all things he enjoyed, planted and observed. According to his daughters journals he was never happier then when he was puttering about his garden beds. There are three main areas of growing things on the site. There are the terraced vegetable beds, the flower path that surrounds the commons on the front of the house and the flower beds that surround the house. One of the coolest things is the Monticello website has an option to find out what flowers are growing when and where they are on the grounds. You can explore what is growing at Monticello, when and where at In Bloom at Monticello.
The flower path in front of Monticello is a wandering oval, that is lined on both sides with a variety of flowers every few feet. We were told that Jefferson’s favorite plant was a “Sensitive Plant”. The Sensitive plant curls inward when you place you hand near it, apparently it’s related to carnivorous plants, like the Venus flytrap. The variety of plants is amazing. The grounds were overgrown for decades and when they were eventually restored they were reconstructed based on Jefferson’s notes. Jefferson kept meticulous notes and sketches and recorded the daily temperatures in his notebooks for decades. According to the journals there were originally about twenty flower beds around Monticello itself. Turns out Jefferson found that was not nearly enough for everything he wanted to plant so he added the oval flower path and kept on experimenting.
One of the best things about Monticello are the terraced vegetable gardens. Originally there was only mountainside, the terraces were man made. In modern times the terraces would be dug by heavy equipment or the Permaculture equivalent of an Amish barn raising. In the 18th century, there was no heavy equipment, or Permaculture, so we’ll leave it to the imagination to how the terraces were actually developed. The Garden tour guide told us that the vegetable gardens were not adequate to grow enough produce to feed the entire plantation, mostly they produced for the Jefferson family and guests. Many of the slave households had their own gardens, to produce for themselves and sold the excess to Jefferson – even under the most dire circumstances capitalism was apparently a thing.
As awe inspiring as the garden and flower beds are, the actually housing complex that is Monticello is almost overwhelming. During the house tour were where told that Jefferson designed the house and decorated all of it, at least the first floor, to be a teaching moment for everyone who came to visit. The lobby has artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition, fossils, Greek busts and lots of other things, including a perpetual clock designed to tell the day and time using cannonball weights. Turns out when Jefferson designed the clock the lobby space wasn’t high enough to show Saturday so he had holes cut in the floor and if you go in the basement you can see the label for Saturday. Jefferson had a seven day clock in a six day space.
In conclusion, Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer really enjoyed Monticello. There is every chance that your homesteading duo will be returning to the area and exploring further. We did not have time to visit the gardens at Mount Vernon (we hear George Washington is an interesting fellow) and Jamestown and Yorktown are within an hour of Monticello. There is a lot of history in the area and a lot of gardening going on, so it’s worth a look if you have the chance.
For those of you who might now be tired of the Mad Farmer’s adventure in Montana we will go ahead and shift topics for a bit to the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS. If you are not familiar with Ogden Publications they are a publishing company based in Topeka, Ks. They publish magazines like GRIT, Mother Earth News, Mother Earth Living, Capper’s Farmer, UTNE and several others. They have been proponents of homesteading, green living and regenerative agriculture for a lot of years and possibly one of the best kept secrets in Kansas. Ogden Publishing shouldn’t be a secret of Kansas but we’re considered a “fly-over state” so some of the really cool things that do go on here seem to get overlooked by some of the snobbier states (take notice Oregon and Washington, it’s not just you greening up the desert anymore)!
Anyway, the Mother Earth News Fair is a homesteading, back-to-nature, gardening, beekeeping, sustainable-living jamboree of vendors, presenters and small business folks that get together to put on a event several times a year in various locations around the country. Currently there are six fairs a year and Ogden Publications started having one in their own hometown in 2014. It looked interesting and it was local so we attended the first one they had in Topeka, Ks and had a great time.
As near as I can remember the Mother Earth News Fair, speakers and topics being presented is how I got into being interested in Permaculture and sustainable living. Jessi Bloom, author of “Free-Range Chicken Gardens” and “Practical Permaculture” (an excellent book) was there, Joel Salatin, author of “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” and “The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer” was a keynote speaker, Rosemary Gladstar, herbalist extraordinaire and many others were at the fair giving presentations on tons of homesteading and sustainable living topics.
It’s hard to believe that I blogged about the last fair only a year ago. A lot of the bloggers and podcasters I follow have had dozens if not hundreds of articles and podcasts in that time. I’ve posted far fewer than that and hope to be better and more consistent going forward. So, moving down memory lane to the present this year’s fair came the weekend after I got back from Montana. Having just spent several days with some pretty awesome innovators I was pretty stoked to attend the fair when I got back. An added bonus was that Uncle Mud was going to be there with his family presenting on a number of topics.
Miss Mercy (the most tolerant, long-suffering , Mad Farmer’s wife on the face of the planet) and I were hoping to get together with Uncle Mud and family prior to the show (okay, it was really just me hoping) but they were late getting in so I didn’t to get to see him until his early Saturday presentation.
Today is January 20th in Kansas (actually it’s probably January 20th everywhere except across the international dateline) and for a change the weather is not as cold as it has been. For the last several weeks we have had below zero lows and highs ranging from 8 to 20 degrees. Most people would agree that is fairly cold. In the fall I built some cold frames and things were going along swimmingly until the weather got brutal. I’ve read many people who cheerfully grow veg in their frames all winter. In none of the accounts did I read what happens when you have long periods of sub-zero weather. Well I can attest from personal experience my Swiss Chard and most everything else did not enjoy it. I’m hoping that it will come back as temperatures get warmer, I guess we’ll wait and see.
Anyone out there have cold frames? What have you had success with? How have your plants fared in extreme weather? As we journey on our path towards sustainability I find that there are always more things to learn and more things to try. Stay warm, Keep learning…