All the President’s Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses – How the White House Grounds Have Grown With America by Marta McDowell

All I can say about All the President’s Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses – How the White House Grounds Have Grown With America by Marta McDowell is “What an amazing book!” – filled with illustrations (maps/plans/designs, drawings, charts, paintings, portraits, photographs, ) and a rambling history of the building of the White House and its gardens with a lot of little tidbits reflecting the life and times of our country.

George Washington, a serious gardener, selected the location of the White House (not far from his home of Mount Vernon). L’Enfant was drafted to design the city, including laying out the White House grounds and although Jefferson fired him the plans were still used. Washington died before the White House was completed and John Adams only lived there a short time. Jefferson was more interested in buildings than gardens, although he was responsible for developing the front and back yards. He chose the Lombardy Poplar to be planted along Pennsylvania Avenue. James Madison used Jeffersons plan to design the gardens, adding trees, ornamental flowers, shrubs, and vines.

The Shakers “invented” the little envelopes which they filled with seeds selling door to door and for commission at various general stores. Their sales even found their way outside the US – The consulate in Naples shared a packet with a visiting President.

It was the gardener and the President’s valet/slave who assisted Dolly Madison in rescuing the portrait of Washington and other valuables which could be grabbed prior to the British burning the White House. The British ate the meal and drank the wine Dolly had prepared for her husband prior to torching her home. The original building took twelve years to complete, but when the original architect, James Hoban, was called back to repair the damage, the rebuild only took 3 years. The garden, destroyed by both fire and construction, also had to be redone .

The first five Presidents were plantation owners with an interest in gardening. Since they were responsible for the expense of providing meals for their guests, the vegetable garden, begun by Madison, became an important part of the grounds. Botany was a gentlemanly pursuit practiced by the various inhabitants of the White House with most of the wives more concerned with the domestic arrangements inside the executive mansion.

The growth of the grounds took many decades and reflected the styles of the time, often influenced by the formats of French and/or English gardens in Europe.

John Ousley, a naturalized citizen from Ireland, was the official gardener for fifty years. Sheep were used for “turf management”.

Numerous Horticultural organizations began specializing in ornamental gardening and the flora of DC was catalogued. In the 1830’s Ousley won prizes for the produce grown in the White House gardens, especially for strawberries.

Trees, both imported and domestic were a part of the schematic.

Andrew Jackson brought magnolias with him to the White House in honor of his wife Rachel who died shortly before he took office.

Andrew Jackson Downing, a renowned American horticulturalist, developed a plan for Washington and the White House grounds. Unfortunately, in 1852, at the age of twenty six, on his way to DC, the steamer he was aboard sank on the Hudson River and he drowned along with the plans. However, his designs for The Mall and Lafayette Park were implemented.

Over the years there were additions which ranged from an orangery to a greenhouse to an ornamental conservatory.

Even during Lincoln’s presidency, the gardens were open to the public. Mary Todd Lincoln began the custom of sending flower bouquets to recipients in lieu of a visit.

Henry Pfister, born in Zurich, became the head gardener in 1877, supervising 5 other gardeners. During his tenure bulbs became popular, but his flower of choice was the amaryllis. Pfister Introduced the horse drawn mowing machine and made sure the boilers for the conservatory were properly stoked.

Rutherford B Hayes and his wife instituted the Easter Egg Roll on the White House Lawn which was set up (as well as cleaned up) by the horticulturalist.

The Washington Monument was dedicated in 1885 by Chester A. Arthur.

When Teddy Roosevelt took office his children, 6 sons and 1 daughter, and their pets took control of the White House and the gardens. He succeeded in getting the White House expanded, but to make ready for the addition (the beginning of what is now known as the West Wing) the conservatory and greenhouses had to be removed (some relocated near the Washington monument). Pfister was not pleased. No longer needed, he was dismissed in 1902.

George H Brown was then hired and he installed a new garden. Colonial gardens were back in style. Food gardening gradually disappeared.

Teddy Roosevelt promoted the McMillan plan bringing in two renowned architects plus Frederick Law Olmsted to redesign the city leading to the development of the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial.

It was Helen Taft who promoted Eliza Scidmore’s vision of the glory of the Cherry Tree blossoms inspired by her experiences in Tokyo as a youth. They ended up being planted at Potomac Park, enhancing the view from the White House and complementing the Washington Monument. 2000 trees were donated by the mayor of Tokyo but they were infested, but about 6000 healthy trees were later sent, half going to Central Park in NYC and the rest to DC. in 1912.

Helen Wilson hired a woman, Beatrix Jones, to design her White House garden outside the West Wing, much to the chagrin of the Army Corps of Engineers who maintained the grounds. After Helen died, the new First Lady, Edith Wilson, continued on with Beatrix’s plans, though modified, for the East Garden.

During WWI with men off to war, woman began organizing and war gardens, with the Women’s Land Army, became the rage.

The Coolidges had the first National Christmas Tree in 1923.

Frederick Law Olmsted was disappointed in the gardens, feeling they should be a model for garden enthusiasts across the country. In 1935, under the Roosevelt administration, he was brought in to create a Landscape Development Plan.

During WWII the newly named Victory Garden once again became popular, including one at the White House.

Some Presidents, such as Hoover, wanted “the help” to be invisible, but Truman was dismayed that the gardeners were hiding behind the bushes when he passed and insisted they be at ease and continue their duties whether or not he was in the vicinity. During the Truman Administration the White House was renovated/repaired including the addition of a balcony. Between the construction and the lawn being dug up to create a bomb shelter, the lawn and gardens had to be quickly redone (and updated) with resodding and plantings, including a blooming cherry tree.

Eisenhower installed a putting green and it was during his term that helicopters took off and landed on the White House south lawn to the chagrin of the head gardener since it burnt the grass.

Jackie Kennedy, inspired by their trip through Europe, had the gardens redesigned, headed up by her friend Rachel Melon. By this point The National Park Service was entrusted with keeping up the grounds. The White House Rose Garden was included in this endeavor which also needed enough green space to accommodate 1000 guests and a raised platform for presentations such as the introduction of the 7 astronauts of Project Mercury. Due to the assassination of President Kennedy, work on the East Garden stopped, but Lady Bird Johnson insisted it continue as designed and named the results the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. Lady Bird also started the Capitol Beautification Project. Her contribution to the White House grounds was the addition of the Children’s Garden including a gold fish pond.

Tricia Nixon was married to Edward Cox in the Rose Garden.

Debris from the burning of the White House in 1814 was found when digging a swimming pool for Gerald Ford.

Jimmy Carter had a platform tree house built for his daughter Amy. Caroline Kennedy had a more elaborate structure, but it was a policy to remove children’s play equipment at the end of each president’s term in office

Carter, a farmer, took various cuttings from the White House gardens back home to his farm in Georgia. Labels were added to the commemorative trees during his administration. Ronald Reagan declared the Rose the national floral emblem of the United States.

Barbara Bush left the gardening to the National Park Service staff although a horseshoe pit and a pond stocked with goldfish was added. The squirrels kept eating the fish.

When an elm planted by John Quincy Adams in the 1820’s had to be removed after a second lightning strike in 1991, a new tree was planted using a grafting from the original elm.

Hillary Clinton added sculptures to the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.

When the street in front of the White House had to be closed for security reasons after 9/11 during the Bush administration, the Pennsylvania Avenue Project was instituted and completed by November 2004. Laura Bush updated the Rose Garden and added some of the original plants as well as the first lady’s favorite, Texas Bluebonnets.

Michelle O’bama added a food garden, adhering to Olmsted’s original plan from 1935 to keep the vista lines across the South Fountain clear. The White House Kitchen Garden used some of the same plants grown by Jefferson at Monticello. Bee hives were added to produce honey.

When President Obama visited the Pope he presented the Pontiff with hybrid seeds from the White House Gardens.

In addition to all these tidbits and more, the author included an annotated list of all the White House gardeners/horticulturaluralists. Most recently Irvin Williams (nicknamed Whitey) served from 1962 to 2008 under 8 Presidents and in 2008 Dale Haney was appointed Superintendent of the Grounds.

Also included is a list of all the Presidential plants (Shrubs, Trees, and Vines) with their common name, botanical name, whether they are indigenous to the lower 48 states, and whether they were on the grounds from inventories in 1809, 1900, and 2008 (a few plants appear on all three lists) with any known cultivators as well as notes of interest. The numerous photographs and other illustrations certainly enhance the entire narrative.

The book concludes with recommended readings, a bibliography of resources and citations, acknowledgements, and a list of Illustration sources and credits.

I was expecting to skim through this book, but was surprised to find the text totally fascinating (as you can see by my selected notes) and read every word. Marta McDowell did an unbelievable amount of research which will appeal to both gardeners and America History buffs. Five stars and a thank you to Timber Press and Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.


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