Thinking about Inauguration Day in January, my mind naturally goes to the White House landscape and gardens. I’ve only visited the White House once, and it was an indoor tour. I would much rather tour the gardens outside!
President George Washington envisioned a botanical garden and purchased the land for it. John Adams was the first president to live in the White House, though the grounds were too littered with construction debris for a garden. Thomas Jefferson made a landscape plan and planted trees. But it was John Quincy Adams who formally established an ongoing White House garden program; he even did some of the gardening himself.
A magnolia tree believed to be planted by Andrew Jackson survived until recently, when it became too unstable to remain standing. To maintain the magnolia’s historical roots (literally), it was replaced by one of its own offshoots, tended to at a greenhouse until the time came to remove the original tree.
The grounds of the White House encompass 18 acres, with a landscape plan generally conforming to the design commissioned by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 and developed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, son of the famed founder of American landscape architecture.
Two formal gardens grace the grounds. The Rose Garden, established in 1913 by First Lady Ellen Wilson, replaced the colonial garden begun by First Lady Edith Roosevelt in 1902. President Kennedy ordered the Rose Garden be redesigned in 1961. In the years following, plants were moved and replaced (like they are regularly in my garden!) and the garden morphed into a very different design. In 2020, Melania Trump oversaw a renovation of the garden to restore the original design from the Kennedy administration and add a paved path for accessibility.
The other formal garden is the East Garden, begun by Jacqueline Kennedy but not completed until the Johnson administration. Lady Bird Johnson oversaw completion of the East Garden project herself and re-named it the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.
In addition to the formal gardens, there is a Kitchen Garden, started by Michelle Obama in 2009. It provides food for the First Family and for official functions such as State dinners. Additional food harvested from the garden is donated to a local nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. One of the raised beds in the Kitchen Garden contains plants originated from seeds of Thomas Jefferson’s plants at Monticello. The Kitchen Garden also includes a Pollinator Garden to attract bees and butterflies.
Presidents and their families have come and gone from the White House over the past two centuries, and the landscape and gardens have been tweaked and replanted. But one thing remains the same. As the late, longtime White House head gardener Irvin Williams said, “Our trees, our plants, our shrubs, know nothing about politics."
Mari Lane Gewecke is a Master Gardener volunteer, affiliated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus program, and a self-employed consultant.