By Susan Wilhelm, Extension Master Gardener
We who live in the DC-Metro area are fortunate to be surrounded by many wonderful historical gardens, such as Mount Vernon, Hillwood, and Tudor Place. Among these are the gardens at the White House. All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses—How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America (All the President’s Gardens) by Marta McDowell is a fascinating history of the White House grounds and gardens and how they evolved over time.
All the President’s Gardens starts with George Washington, his gardens at Mount Vernon, and Pierre L’Enfant’s original plans for the capital city and the grounds surrounding the building that would become known as the White House. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe revised L’Enfant’s design and it is this revised design, planted by James Madison’s gardeners, that provides the structure for the White House gardens as they exist today. Moving through subsequent presidencies, McDowell describes major changes in the garden’s design and implementation. Along the way, the reader learns that when James Madison’s gardeners planted the first White House vegetable garden, the seed order included several varieties of cabbage, broccoli, and radishes; Rutherford B. Hayes began the practice of planting memorial trees, and Dwight D. Eisenhower added a putting green.
Throughout, McDowell chronicles how changes in the White House gardens were influenced by gardening styles of the time as well as by presidential and first lady interests. For example, the Victorian gardens of the 1890s (Grover Cleveland); the colonial revival gardens that replaced them in the early 1900s (Theodore Roosevelt); and the updating of the Rose Garden (Laura Bush). McDowell also describes the contributions of the various landscape architects and garden designers, including Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., who designed the South Lawn as we know it today; Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon, who designed the original Rose Garden; and Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose firm designed the pedestrian promenade that replaced Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House after 9/11.
Equally important are the head gardeners, such as Henry Pfister (the longest serving head gardener known, among other things, for hybridizing amaryllis), who propagated plants and oversaw the planting and maintenance of the White House grounds. A short biography of each is at the end of the book.
All the Presidents Gardens is filled with historical photographs, original maps, landscape plans, and other illustrations. Interested in growing a plant from the White House in your own garden? A table at the end lists the common name, botanical name, and (sometimes) cultivars of the shrubs, trees, and vines planted at the White House from inventories conducted in 1809, 1900, and 2008. McDowell also recommends several books for further reading.
Since 1972, the White House gardens have been open to the public twice yearly, usually in April and October. The National Park Service generally announces the exact dates and ticket information a few weeks before the event.
All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses—How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America (Timber Press, 2016) will appeal to gardeners, history buffs, and anyone interested in a good read. It is available at the Alexandria Public Library, the Arlington Public Library, and from national booksellers.