Arts & Culture

Secrets of the Presidents’ Gardens

Little-known Southern tidbits about the White House gardens

The eighteen acres surrounding the White House are the Forrest Gump of gardens. At least, that’s how horticultural historian Marta McDowell thinks of them. “Forrest Gump appears in all these famous moments—and yet he’s not the main event, he just happens to be there,” she says. “The garden is a lot like that. It’s not an over-the-top space, and it’s quite understated, but it’s always there as history unfolds.”

Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress

Sheep graze the White House lawn during World War I, keeping the grass short when workers were hard to find.

Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress

Roses, pansies, daisies, and other old-fashioned flowers fill the box-lined Colonial Revival beds in 1902.

Each president has made the White House and its landscape his own. In her new book, All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses—How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America, McDowell digs into the history of the land as well as the first families and gardeners who made the space a beautiful backdrop to American history. Beginning with the founding fathers and continuing to the present First Lady Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden, author and New York Botanical Garden landscape history teacher McDowell explores the garden’s past and present. Here are a few little-known Southern tidbits she found.

Washington, D.C.’s earliest power players were Southerners—and gardeners.
George Washington negotiated for Maryland and Virginia to cede public lands to create the city. The first president’s capitol grounds drew inspiration from his beloved Mount Vernon and the way it rose up above the Potomac River. “There was this Virginia contingent of the first presidents,” McDowell says. “It was like a little powerhouse concentrated in Virginia, and they all knew the same gardeners.” Later, President Thomas Jefferson, a gardening fanatic, added a few stately touches like avenues of poplar trees planted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress

Pennsylvania Avenue and its Lombardy Poplars, looking toward the Capitol before the addition of its dome, around 1813.

Andrew Jackson brought Tennessee magnolias.
Just before his 1829 inauguration, Andrew Jackson was preparing to leave the Hermitage, his home near Nashville, when his wife, Rachel, died suddenly. White House lore says that the mourning Jackson brought magnolia saplings from his Tennessee home to plant on the south side of the White House in her memory. Multiple presidents have rested in the shade of what is now called the “Jackson Magnolia.” Cuttings from the same tree migrated to Lady Bird Johnson’s Texas homes, Florida’s capitol, and the Daviess County courthouse in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress; New York Botanical Gardens

Andrew Jackson atop his horse, Duke, looks to the White House from Lafayette Square; A Southern magnolia.

Presidential kids have had the run of the land. Quentin, the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, was born in Washington, D.C., and made the gardens his romping grounds. He sailed toy boats in the fountain and carved a baseball diamond in the White House lawn. Many first families similarly made the gardens a place for children to enjoy. Thirty-ninth President Jimmy Carter planted pines and maples from his family’s Georgia farm, and also built a treehouse for his children and grandchildren in the branches of a great cedar on the South Lawn.

Photo: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration; Library of Congress

Jimmy Carter reaches toward his grandson and daughter in the great cedar in 1977; Quentin Roosevelt and Roswell Pinckney, the son of the White House steward, play among tulips.

Even the president can’t stand squirrels. “The White House garden has a long, complicated relationship with squirrels,” McDowell says. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower turned a section of the lawn into a putting green but a population of gray squirrels wreaked havoc on his maintained turf. McDowell’s research unearthed details from Irvin Williams, who described some of the creative vermin-busting tactics he used throughout his more than forty-year tenure as head gardener: Bushels of Georgia peanuts strapped to tree trunks lured squirrels away from digging up tulip bulbs and fertilizer laced with Louisiana hot sauce made the ground less palatable for digging pests.

Photo: Courtesy Timber Press

Hydrangeas bloomed at the White House after the Civil War.

The roses come first. White House residents have long prized their roses. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy wanted to redesign the residence’s rose garden, so he enlisted the help of family friend Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, whose Virginia estate he had long admired. The Rose Gardens received a facelift forty years later when Laura Bush, a gardener herself, replanted the crabapples, boxwood, and linden trees, and added one of her favorite wildflowers—Texas bluebonnets. “The White House gardens are a bastion of tradition,” McDowell says, “But you can see how each family has left their own mark.”

Photo: Courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Library

Laura Bush, holding a rose named in her honor, smiles at rose hybridizer Bill Williams.