Historical roots and highlights

Important times in the history
of the White House garden:

1791: City planner Pierre L'Enfant envisions a presidential palace set in a royal park, and George Washington sets aside 82 acres near the banks of the Potomac.

1800: John Adams, the nation's second president, becomes the first chief executive to live in the White House and plans a vegetable garden to trim his food bills.

1801: Thomas Jefferson trims the size of the president's park to about the 18 acres it occupies now, plants trees and plans a garden.

1814: The garden is scorched and trampled when the British army burns the White House.

1825: John Quincy Adams plants the first flower garden and surrounds it with ornamental trees.

1835: Andrew Jackson receives a palm once owned by Washington and plants more trees, including a magnolia that still survives.

1870s: First lady Julia Grant begins the tradition of garden parties.

1878-80: Rutherford B. Hayes plants hundreds of trees and begins the tradition of commemorative trees to represent each president and state.

1913: First lady Ellen Wilson replaces the Colonial garden with the first Rose Garden and plants a new East Garden.

1935: President Franklin D. Roosevelt invites landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to prepare a plan for the grounds. It is executed and prevails to this day.

1943: The construction of the Jefferson Memorial due south of the White House completes the view.

1961: President John F. Kennedy has the Rose Garden redesigned as an outdoor room for official ceremonies.

1994: Hillary Rodham Clinton begins a rotating display of modern sculpture in the East Garden.

1993-1996: President Clinton continues the tradition of commemorative trees, including two dogwood planted to memorialize the victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing and the death in a plane crash of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.



The White House Garden

Chronicle rich in presidential anecdotes

By Lawrence L. Knutson

In the White House garden, an artillery battery salutes heads of state one day and children roll Easter eggs the next.

The White House garden is a place where roses are named for Nancy Reagan and Pat Nixon, and a tulip is named for Hillary Rodham Clinton. It shows off with the fire of red tulips in the spring and a quilt of bronze and gold chrysanthemums in the fall.

It is a garden rooted in history. The early plans were drawn by Thomas Jefferson. John Quincy Adams collected plants and tilled the soil alongside his gardener. Andrew Jackson built a shelter for a palm cultivated by George Washington and planted a magnolia that is the garden's oldest tree today.

The White House garden has a chronicler in William Seale, an architectural historian who has written extensively on the White House and the two centuries of presidents who have lived and worked there.

"The White House garden has become a green refuge from the paved-over heart of the capital," Mr. Seale writes in "The White House Garden," to be published by the White House Historical Association. "Plant material grows lush, unrestrained by civilization all around. Wild birds nest in the trees, oblivious to presidential security."

Mr. Seale describes how workmen transform the garden for a new season:

"The men jump down and swarm ruthlessly pulling from the black soil the nodding heads of wilting red tulips that for weeks have made such a show. The outcast bulbs are piled on the truck, and the workers take to the dirt with their shovels, chopping it finely and spreading a snowy nutrient....

"A smaller truck stops in the Rose Garden with trays of seedlings to be planted. Here are summer asters, daisies phlox, black-eyed susans, candy tuft, mullein, coral-bells, all old-fashioned flowers massed together to rise by late June in floral abundance that lasts until the first frost in October."

Pierre L'Enfant, the planner, saw the president's house as a palace, set in its own regal park. George Washington envisioned a botanical park on the 82 acres he set aside for his successors.

But when John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the new executive mansion in November 1800, the second president had a more practical use for the land. Groaning under the expense of official entertaining, he wanted a vegetable garden to help pare costs.

Politics intervened. Jefferson won the next election. Adams was sent back to Boston before his vegetables could be planted.

Jefferson, an accomplished gardener as well as an amateur architect, shaped the grounds, planting groves of oak and sycamore, poplar and cedar.

The president planted weeping willows on either side of an arch leading to the president's enclosure. "It was often said that presidents entered rejoicing on the north and departed on the south weeping with the willows," Mr. Seale writes.

For himself, Jefferson kept geraniums, strawberries, figs and orange trees in pots and boxes in the windows of his office.

John Quincy Adams helped work the soil himself, on his knees alongside gardener John Ousley.

"On his travels and walks he picked up seeds and dug small plants to bring back to the White House," Mr. Seale writes.

In the summer of 1827, the president recorded the results in his diary.

"In this small garden of not less than two acres there are forest and fruit trees, shrubs, hedges, (succulent) vegetables, kitchen and medicinal herbs, hothouse plants, flowers and weeds to the amount I conjecture of at least one thousand."

Adams was defeated by Andrew Jackson, his bitter rival, who differed with his predecessor in everything but his enthusiasm for gardens.

Jackson, Mr. Seale writes, invested in grub hoes and mole traps, planted elms and maples and oaks, had walks laid out among gardens that soon were filled with foxglove, dragonhead, sweet William and daisies.

In 1835, after a fire at Mount Vernon, George Washington's descendants presented Jackson with a Malayan sago or feather palm that the first president had grown from seed. He built an orangery to store his prized plant, along with fruit trees and camellias.

By the next administration, politics had invaded the garden.

President Martin Van Buren was attacked by his enemies as a lover of near-regal extravagance.

In a widely publicized speech, Rep. Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania detailed Van Buren's alleged indulgences and did not neglect the garden, which he implied rivaled that of Versailles.

Leafing through the bills, Mr. Ogle said Van Buren had been busy "constructing fountains, paving footways, planting, transplanting, pruning and dressing horse chestnuts, lindens, beds and borders, training and irrigating honey suckles, trumpet creepers, primroses, lady slippers . . . and preparing beautiful bouquets for the palace saloons."

Later presidents did not heed the warning. Jackson's simple brick orangery grew by the end of the 19th century into "a Taj Mahal of glass ' a vast expanse of greenhouses, including an orchid house, extending from the west wall of the White House.

Theodore Roosevelt threw out the "glass houses" along with the finery of the Victorian era that encrusted the White House. His wife and his gardener designed a Colonial garden along the colonnade of the West Wing. In time, it was replaced by the first Rose Garden, installed by Woodrow Wilson's first wife, Ellen.

Mrs. Wilson's landscape designer also planned a new east garden, today called the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden or the First Ladies' Garden. Mrs. Clinton created a new tradition by using it to showcase a changing exhibition of American modern sculpture.

John F. Kennedy became interested in gardens in 1961 after reading Jefferson's gardening notes. He directed the transformation of the Rose Garden into an outdoor room that can accommodate 1,000 people at ceremonies and receptions.

It was at a Rose Garden reception for Boys Nation in July 1963 where young Bill Clinton claimed a handshake from President Kennedy.

Mr. Seale dedicated his book to Ervin Williams, who directed the construction and planting of the Rose Garden and who remains the chief White House gardener.