February is a month dedicated to honoring our presidents. What better time to share with you one of my favorite gardening books. It is All the Presidents’ Gardens by Marta McDowell, which is basically a botanical journey through U.S. history.
The book begins with George Washington laying out plans for the gardens he would not live to see. Thomas Jefferson was also an enthusiastic gardener and greatly influenced the development of the White House gardens. Each president added his own special style to the gardens. Early on, gardening was considered a gentleman’s occupation and the first ladies did not really factor into the garden plans. Mary Todd Lincoln did have an influence on the gardens, but not in a good way. She was known to engage in retail therapy and often overspent her budget. The head gardener was persuaded to divert funds from the garden budget to cover her excesses.
Vegetable gardens came and went at the White House. At first they were a necessity. James Madison grew vegetables to offset the culinary expenses at the White House. During that period, the President was expected to pay the cost of feeding all of the guests visiting the executive mansion. By Teddy Roosevelt’s term, all that was left of the vegetable gardens was a patch of mint. Vegetable gardens returned to the White House during WWII with the victory garden movement. However, they did not stay long. Michelle Obama helped plant a kitchen garden and the first beehives were also introduced to the White House at that time.
Animals were also kept on the White House lawn. This necessity became less important, and Taft’s administration saw the last of the dairy cows. The last cow standing was a Holstein named Pauline Wayne. Sheep were used to trim the grass at the executive residence during WWI. Their wool was auctioned off and the $52,000 proceeds were given to the National Red Cross.
The Washington Cherry Trees were planted in 1912 during the Taft administration. These beautiful trees have had their ups and downs. They survived the Cherry Tree Rebellion of 1938 when protestors chained themselves to the tree to keep them from being moved to make way for the Jefferson Memorial. Four were axed down shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1999, 3 beavers decided to use the cherry trees as building materials for a new dam. They were quickly relocated.
The presidents and their families also added recreational areas to their liking. Porches were built and sometimes later torn down. Eisenhower added a putting green. George H. Bush preferred a horseshoe pit. Gerald Ford had an outdoor swimming pool installed. Both Caroline Kennedy and Amy Carter had tree houses.
Roses are an ongoing theme throughout the book. Thomas Jefferson kept roses in his White House office. The rose garden has been the site of many important events. Several first ladies have had roses named for them. In 1986, President Reagan declared the rose the national floral emblem of the United States.
If you are curious as to when the Easter egg roll started, or when the National Christmas Tree was established, or who was the first executive pet at the White House, or about many, many other interesting bits of history, I highly recommend you read this fascinating book.
Kathy Lehman, Lycoming County Master Gardener