This Week's Podcast: Turning the White House Green – with Marta McDowell
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When I think of the grounds of the White House, I think of unimaginative plantings – traditional lawn, pruned azaleas, and what I judge to be the least interesting landscape convention – a rose garden.
I brought those prejudices with me when I opened garden historian Marta McDowell’s new book, All the Presidents’ Gardens.
Boy, was I wrong. Pick up this book and you will not be able to put it down. It’s full of the most fascinating stories – right from the start – with George Washington’s preoccupation for collecting trees before the building was even built. What about Jefferson’s farmers’ market charts? And his recommendation for fruit trees like the “Breast-of-Venus” peach. I noticed that there was a bill for clover seed; the lawn was clover at one time, years before Americans were talked into a weed-free putting green.
Marta’s book has plenty of behind-the-scenes demi-scandals and fashion faux pas. For instance, Mary Todd Lincoln had some help paying her shopping debts by padding the gardener’s manure bill.
And that rose garden? It seems I did jump to a conclusion based on seeing the President on TV standing at a lectern with maybe some tulips, if that. Marta dispels that notion. It seems that Mrs. Kennedy and her friend and horticultural adviser Rachel (“Bunny”) Mellon created an elegant landscape completed in 1962 with geometric beds outlined in low boxwood hedges, dotted with small trees and filled with colorful foliage or flowers. (And this tasteful style is still the most popular with well-heeled Americans whose gardens are maintained by others. Above, President Kennedy in the rose garden.)
Marta’s book is like a Ken Burns documentary covering the goings-on outside of the Executive Mansion. And like those films there are plenty of archival illustrations: catalog pages, drawings, prints, etchings, newspaper cartoons and terrific photographs.
It would be great if we could go back and visit all of these formal and informal gardens that represented the pinnacle of taste at the times of our country’s first families. Gardens are ephemeral, most of these gardens are gone. They only live in Marta McDowell’s new book.