Plantations were large money-making enterprises, and ideally produced most goods that were needed on site as well as a surplus of crops and other products for sale. Initially, Monroe found that only a small portion of Highland was cultivated. In 1798, however, he estimated that the plantation could produce 20,000 pounds of tobacco.
To increase production, he –like his friend and neighbor Thomas Jefferson—experimented with a variety of agricultural techniques. Monroe successfully planted cover crops, and plowed plaster of paris, or gypsum, into the soil, techniques of boosting soil productivity. Eventually Monroe replaced tobacco with grain crops, which were less draining on the soil.
Her household also required numerous herbs—herbs for cooking, herbs for scenting the linens and repelling moths, and herbs for their medicinal properties, and still other plants for dyeing fabrics. She must have found, as Highland gardeners find today, that some plants thrive in the rich red Virginia earth, while others struggle and eventually die.
On the Grounds
The estate’s mature Boxwood Gardens, planted over a century ago, are graced by a magnificent white oak. Still standing from Monroe’s day, this majestic “witness tree” is twenty feet in circumference. The formal landscape provides a number of peaceful garden settings for museum and private social events.