My wife started her seedlings indoors last weekend, looking forward to planting once the soil warms up at the end of May. Gardeners have a short season in Vermont.
But planning the rows, perusing the catalogues, readying the cold frames takes months. Working the earth has a comforting ritual that gives shape to the year.
So it was for our Founders, most of whom were farmers. As a boy, John Adams was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. His dad, hoping to instill higher aspirations in the boy, took him to the marsh to spend a wet, muddy backbreaking day cutting thatch. That night the senior Adams asked the lad, “Well, John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?” “Yes sir, I like it very well!” the sprout replied. It was not to be—until late in life, when overseeing the patch of land he called Peacefield became one of Adams’ greatest pleasures.
Early on, Thomas Jefferson started a garden journal. To artist Charles Wilson Peale he wrote that “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the production of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.”
George Washington, at Mount Vernon, went in for “scientific” agriculture, planting seeds of oats, barley and other grains within a variety of clays, silts, and sandy soils in carefully controlled settings to measure the effects of differing composts on their growth. He devoured texts on horticulture, and was one of the few among our forefathers who actually managed to make a profit from his farming.
James Madison became president of his local agricultural society, where he became a forceful advocate of crop rotation, contour plowing, careful woodland management and other conservation techniques.
Did farming inspire their spirituality? As practical types, they weren’t much interested in metaphysical disputes, but more concerned with religion’s earthly effects—the fruit that faith bore in the form of charity, honesty and goodwill. They preferred ethics to dogma. Any religion was worthy that helped raise crops of good citizens.
Of course, Jefferson was convinced that America should be a nation of yeomen farmers. Agriculture and virtue were equated, in his mind. Where else is there such a direct correlation between hard work and pay-off in the end? You reap what you sow.
So maybe the “Garden Song” should be our new national anthem? Planting a garden—like our new First Lady Michelle Obama—could become the true mark of a good American. And politicians could try spreading manure in a new and very helpful sense.