On Presidents’ Day, I began to think about a trip we made to Washington, D.C., about 10 years ago, and the presidential gardens we visited. In particular, I fell in love with the lawns and architecture of Monticello and Mount Vernon. But thanks to a friend, we also got tickets to tour some of the White House lawns. If we were not so far away, I would visit these historic sites every spring and summer!
Thomas Jefferson, who grew more than 250 varieties of herbs and vegetables at his Monticello plantation, started a tradition of planting trees on the White House grounds. We got to see trees planted by several former presidents. Among the longest living trees is a magnolia selected by Andrew Jackson.
Of course, the grounds are magnificent, with fescue grass and plenty of shrubs and flowers to enjoy. The first White House gardener was likely Charles Bizet, who was hired by President James Monroe. The gardens had a congruous feel and flow, while also including personal touches of past presidents and first ladies.
Kitchen Garden Tradition
President John Adams first ordered vegetable gardens on the White House grounds, and Thomas Jefferson refined and expanded on the gardens. After seeing the 1,000-foot long, terraced kitchen garden at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., I can imagine President Jefferson knew how to manage the project.
Presidents continued to grow food on the grounds, and elaborate greenhouses were used throughout the 19th century. Victory gardens appeared during wars, but for the most part, White House staff began purchasing produce as local markets became more commonplace.
In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama added an 1,100 square foot kitchen garden to the South Lawn. The garden serves several purposes, including honoring of past presidents with inclusion of some of their favorite heirloom vegetables, production of food for her family and for State dinners, a kitchen garden dedicated to providing food to the homeless, and education for youth about eating healthy. The White House gives group tours of the kitchen gardens, and tours of the lawns occur sporadically throughout spring and summer.
In addition, both Monticello and Mount Vernon offer tours of the grounds. If you make it to the nation’s capitol, I hope you can add these to your stops. You can even buy heirloom seeds in the Monticello gift shop.
Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.