Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf

I’ve long been a fan of Andrea Wulf’s non-fiction. So when the follow-up to The Brother Gardener was announced in 2011, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation (it’s a mouthful!), I immediately pre-ordered a copy. Despite my initial enthusiasm, though, it sat on the shelf. In the end, it took me eight years to read, and even then I chose to listen to the audiobook.

Meticulously researched, well-written, thoughtful and rich in detail… in short, Founding Gardners is everything I’ve come to expect from Wulf. But this particular story, which she chose to put so much effort into telling, never engaged me in the same way as The Brother Gardeners. This isn’t Wulf’s fault so much as a weakness in the material. Where her first book introduced readers to the largely forgotten character of John Bartram and described his influence over gardens on both sides of the Atlantic, this new book (new being a relative term of course) goes over what is already well-covered territory. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – these are quite famous men who have had thousands, if not millions, of pages written about them. The question becomes, is there anything new to say?

Divided into nine parts, with each part focussing on a different event in which gardening can be tied to the birth of the United States of America, Founding Gardeners makes the case that the answer to that question is a “yes!”. Wulf devotes an entire section to how Jefferson and Adam became close friends while touring gardens in England. And in another shows Jefferson betraying that friendship a few years later, rallying political support in the Northern states under the guise of touring the gardens of New England with Madison. She describes the creation of Washington, D.C., the capital city that almost wasn’t. And how George Washington wanted his gardens at Mt. Vernon to showcase plants “Made in America”. She even revisits the 1786 visit to Bartram’s garden which facilitated the founding of a nation.

All of which is very interesting, but to my mind, the true gardening gems in Founding Gardeners get much less space. For example, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson actively procured seeds from around the world, through a variety of means, in order to make the United States agriculturally and (as a result) economically independent. Jefferson smuggled grains of rice out of Italy in 1787 at great risk. He was looking for a type of upland rice that could be grown in dry instead of flooded fields, which were often mosquito-infested and the breeding ground for malaria and yellow fever. Franklin, ever practical, “believed that the colonists’ reliance on agriculture for their main income, combined with seemingly endless resources of land, could be turned to their advantage. America could be self-reliant…” While overseas, he was constantly sending seeds back home to friends to plant and cultivate.

Every time someone told Franklin about a new edible plant, he was thrilled by the possibility of its economic potential. “I wish it may be found of Use with us”, he told one correspondent when he forwarded seeds for a new crop, and when he heard of tofu, it so excited his curiousity, he said, that he procured the recipe from China, dispatching it together with chickpeas to a friend in Philadelphia.

The pages Wulf spends on Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are much less interesting (and more numerous) in comparison. In the United States, these three places are hallowed ground and the destination of many a school trip and/or family vacation. Maybe that’s why much of what Wulf relays about them felt “potted”, — the kinds of facts gleaned from a group tour. And not an altogether thorough one. The flaw in Founding Gardeners is that for the amount of time she spends on Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Montpelier, too little is given to exploring the role of enslaved people in the creation and maintenance of these plantations. Because, despite their pretty names, that is what they were: Southern plantations. I’ve taken the tour at Monticello, and one of the facts we learned was that Jefferson not only built his house on a hill using slave labor, but when he was short of funds he would sell the men, women, and children who lived there in order to continue the work. So, while Jefferson’s, Washington’s, and Madison’s homes are impressive in a grand way, it’s important to understand what the grandiosity cost.

I bring this up because there’s a definite unevenness in how the gardens of the Founding Fathers are discussed, with the obvious preference being given to the men from Virginia. I couldn’t help wishing for more time spent farther North in the more modest gardens of Adams and Franklin. Peacefield, Adam’s home, remains elusive even after reading the book. And Franklin’s modest Philadelphia garden is given only one paragraph in the Prologue — and for a man who we know to have been a botanist, and are told was “proud of his botanical books and enjoyed showing them to visitors” this seems like short shrift.

Overall, while it didn’t meet my expectations and I was frustrated by what I felt were significant ommissions, I did enjoy Founding Gardeners and will revisit parts of it again. The audiobook narrator, Antonia Bath, does an excellent job – but I recommend the print format in this instance. There’s a lot of information, loosely organized, that I think needs the kind of focus that comes from reading words on a page.

Title: Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature & the Shaping of the American Nation
Author: Andrea Wulf
Audiobook Narrator: Antonia Bath
Publisher: Knopf, New York (2011)

Sarah Vowell

I’ve a love / hate relationship with Sarah Vowell.  I loved Assassination Vacation and her contributions to This American Life. But I couldn’t finish The Wordy Shipmates.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy American history and I’ve always had a high tolerance for “snarky”.  Her brand makes me uncomfortable, though.  Sometimes.  When she doesn’t make me laugh.  Or tear up.  I don’t know… take a look at the trailer for her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, and decide for yourselves.

See what I mean? Vowell makes these fabulous and (seemingly) far-fetched connections.  She’s constantly walking a fence between irony and mockery, and it’s never clear which side she intends to land on.  In her hands history becomes accessible and relevant.  And damn funny.  You know, the more I think about it, maybe it’s just the Puritans I don’t like…

What are your thoughts on Sarah Vowell? Love her? Hate her? Ambivalent? Confused?

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