In this election year it seems appropriate that there is a new book about the White House gardens over the centuries. In All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses—How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America,” Marta McDowell traces how the White House landscape has reflected and led trends in gardening from planting trees for the barren lawns in the late 18th century to Michelle Obama’s famous vegetable gardens today.
Some presidents and their wives have been more interested in gardening than others. Thomas Jefferson inspired Obama with his meticulous records of vegetables grown in the Washington, D.C. area 200 years ago. His Monticello garden was his experimental laboratory for new vegetables to serve at the White House. When Obama started her vegetable garden, involving local school children, she consulted the garden staff at Monticello.
The ceremonial planting of trees has a long history at the White House. Andrew Jackson planted magnolia trees in Washington in memory of his beloved wife, Rachel, who died before he moved into the White House. But it was Rutherford Hayes in the 1870s who began a formal program of commemorative tree planting with saplings from Washington’s Mount Vernon, Madison’s Virginia home and white oaks grown from acorns of the Charter Oak in Connecticut.
In the mid 19th century, Andrew Jackson Downing (named for the president) was the pre-eminent landscape designer. Millard Fillmore asked him to create a landscape plan for the White House but Downing died in a steamboat accident on the Hudson River at age 37 before he could submit his plans. One of his ideas, however, endured: a conservatory. The extensive glass houses that were erected 150 years ago have long since been demolished to make way for more office space, what is now known as the West Wing. But throughout the 19th century – including the tenure of Abraham Lincoln—the conservatories provided cut flowers for the presidential residence. McDowell writes “Over ensuing administrations, the executive greenhouses kept growing as if in response to a horticultural manifest destiny.” President Grant even designated one greenhouse as a “grapery” for growing wine grapes.
Throughout this informative book, McDowell weaves gardening trends and major horticultural events into the narrative. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 inspired Grant to install a fountain on the White House lawn.
McDowell not only traces the history of the gardens and the elected residents of the White House but also the tale of the paid gardeners, some of whom were important horticulturalists in American history. Henry Pfister in the late 19th century was a very successful breeder of amaryllis who named some of his introductions for Frances Cleveland and the Cleveland daughters. It was during his long tenure as White House gardener that the greenhouses reached their zenith. During Teddy Roosevelt’s years, the greenhouses had to be dismantled due to building expansion. Pfister was heart-broken and left the presidential employment to start his own florist and landscape business after 35 years at the White House. Although he tore down the greenhouses, Roosevelt was still an avid gardener and environmentalist. McDowell says he came close to being “bully on flowers.” He and his wife strolled through the gardens every day and he wrote to his children what was in bloom.
Nellie Taft, wife of William Howard Taft, is credited with the planting of cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington. She enlisted the help of the plant explorer David Fairchild in importing cherry trees from Japan. After an initial disaster of a shipment of diseased trees, new ones were obtained and 3,000 were planted in 1912 in Washington.
One famous landscape designer who worked on the White House gardens was Beatrix Jones Farrand during the administration of Woodrow Wilson.
To many Americans today, the Jacqueline Kennedy Rose Garden is their concept of the White House grounds. Bunny Mellon actually designed two White House gardens, the second one completed after JFK’s assassination. Lady Bird Johnson was the one who insisted the rose garden bear her predecessor’s name. Johnson is rightly famous for “beautifying” Washington and inspiring Americans to plant native wildflowers along highways. She also had a “children’s garden” created for the White House.
Hillary Clinton is responsible for the addition of outdoor sculpture to the White House Gardens and George and Laura Bush were in charge of the landscape when changes were made to soften the impact of security measures after 9/11 that kept the public farther from the presidential residence. Finally the Obamas have made vegetable gardening a national priority with a demonstration garden to promote healthy eating for children.
McDowell ends her fascinating account of the White House gardens with a plant list citing inventories in 1809, 1900 and 2008.
Her book is a comprehensive look at the White House gardens enriched by incorporating American landscape history into the narrative of the gardens at the presidential residence.
Whoever is elected in November will have a long legacy of gardening to uphold at the White House.