All the Presidents' Gardens: Madison's Cabbages to Kennedy's Roses-How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America

All the Presidents' Gardens: Madison's Cabbages to Kennedy's Roses-How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America

by Marta McDowell


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A New York Times Bestseller and AHS Book Award winner

The 18-acres surrounding the White House have been an unwitting witness to history—kings and queens have dined there, bills and treaties have been signed, and presidents have landed and retreated. Throughout it all, the grounds have remained not only beautiful, but also a powerful reflection of American trends. In All the Presidents' Gardens bestselling author Marta McDowell tells the untold history of the White House grounds with historical and contemporary photographs, vintage seeds catalogs, and rare glimpses into Presidential pastimes. History buffs will revel in the fascinating tidbits about Lincoln’s goats, Ike's putting green, Jackie's iconic roses, and Amy Carter's tree house. Gardeners will enjoy the information on the plants whose favor has come and gone over the years and the gardeners who have been responsible for it all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604695892
Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/27/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 199,057
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Marta McDowell lives, gardens, and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. She consults for public gardens and private clients, writes and lectures on gardening topics, and teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. Her particular interest is in authors and their gardens, the connection between the pen and the trowel.

Read an Excerpt


The United States was too big. For a topic, that is. When my editor suggested I might write a history of American gardening, I sat at my desk. Stunned. It seemed a subject broad as a sea of grass, long and muddy as the Mississippi, elusive as a white whale that would, after a mad, obsessed chase, drag me under.

Regional differences are vast. What grows happily for friends in Denver sulks, then dies, in my humid New Jersey garden. Then there are questions of influence that vary across the wide waist of the continent: the Spanish with their patio and courtyard gardens from Florida to California, the tidy colonial gardens of New England, the immense plantations of the antebellum South. And with more than five-plus centuries, depending on how you count, the players involved in American horticulture and landscape design are legion.

Two people convinced me to take on this quest—one dead, one alive. The reason I study, teach, and write about garden history is because of Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872–1959). On my first visit to the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown in the 1980s, I was smitten with it and Farrand, its designer, one of the country’s first landscape architects. It was about Beatrix Farrand that I taught my first class at the New York Botanical Garden.

Some years later one of my landscape history students, Seamus Maclennan, chose the White House grounds as the topic for his final project. It was riveting, a fifteen-minute chronicle of change in one of America’s most recognizable landscapes. There were victory gardens and flowerbeds, glasshouses and putting greens, all set in the context of American history. For the problem now before me, it would set bounds, but also pull in a cast of characters and a VIP setting. Before I embarked on this undertaking Seamus graciously gave me leave to use his idea, proving once again, if you want to hum along with the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, “that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”

Even with this approach, given the number of presidents plus first ladies, gardeners, architects, and the like, I’ve had to impose some economies in terms of scope. If, for example, Zachary Taylor is your favorite president, you will be disappointed. As neither he nor his wife were involved in the White House gardens, they do not appear in the narrative. “Summer White Houses” were eliminated, though I was sorely tempted by places like Warm Springs, Georgia, Franklin Roosevelt’s retreat south of Atlanta, and Rancho del Cielo, Reagan’s Western White House. The fourteen White House head gardeners’ biographies tell an interesting story in their own right so we see them together in “First Gardeners” at the back of the book.

I have defaulted to common names of plants in the body of the book. For those who prefer proper botanical nomenclature, you will find it in a back section, “All the Presidents’ Plants”—a look at White House plantings over the past two centuries—and the index. If you had hoped for a complete list of plants named for presidents and first ladies, I did too. Unfortunately in most cases these cultivars have not stood the test of time, at least in terms of the marketplace. A rhododendron named ‘Mrs. Grover Cleveland’ might have been a big seller in the 1890s but soon disappeared from the nursery trade.

Long-term White House head gardener Irvin Williams once said, “What’s great about the job is that our trees, our plants, our shrubs, know nothing about politics.” Despite the presidential focus of the book, I have attempted to emulate the politics of plants. Because whether gardeners lean right or left, blue or red, we are united by a love of green growing things and the land in which they grow.

Table of Contents

Preface 7

Prologue The Pursuit of Happiness 11

Versailles on the Potomac The 1790s 15

Founders' Grounds 1800-1809 33

Gentlemen's Occupation 1810s-1830s 55

Embellishments 1840s-1880s 85

Gilded Gardens 1880s-1900s 119

Home Front 1910s-1940s 155

America the Beautiful 1940s-1990s 197

Is Green the New Red, White, and Blue? 1990s and Beyond 235

Epilogue 253

First Gardeners The Men Who Planted for Presidents 257

All the Presidents' Plants Two Centuries of Shrubs, Trees, and Vines 284

Recommended Reading 286

Sources and Citations 289

Acknowledgments 317

Illustration Sources and Credits 319

Index 322

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