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History of the White House Gardens and Grounds

Red tulips and hyacinth surround the White House South Lawn fountain Thursday, April 10, 2008. White House photo by Patrick Tierney.

Planning for a garden at the White House began with President Washington, who expressed a desire to plant a botanical garden. Washington purchased the land for what is now the South lawn from a tobacco planter named Davy Burns, while the North grounds originally belonged to the Pierce family. As the first President to occupy the White House, John Adams ordered the first planting of a garden.

Thomas Jefferson then undertook a complete redesign of the garden. He started the tradition of planting trees when he planted hundreds of seedling trees, although none of Jefferson's trees is believed to have survived to the present day. It was his idea to plant groves of trees, he picked the location for the flower garden, and fences and walls were eventually built where he had specified. In addition, Jefferson built an arc of triumph flanked by two weeping willow trees on the southeast corner of the grounds that are no longer standing.

President James Monroe increased tree planting on the White House grounds, and hired Charles Bizet, who is considered to have been the first White House gardener. When John Quincy Adams followed Monroe into office in 1825, he replaced Bizet with John Ousley, who remained the White House gardener for the next 30 years. Adams was the first President to develop the flower gardens that Jefferson had earlier laid out, and was also the first to plant ornamental trees. As an avid gardener himself, Adams personally enjoyed planting seedlings that included fruit trees, herbs and vegetables.

During the 1830's President Jackson became a big supporter of the gardens, and hired several laborers to assist White House gardener John Ousley. During Jackson's term elm, maple and sycamore trees were planted for the first time. In addition, Jackson had an orangery built to accommodate indoor, year-round gardening, which has since been demolished.

In order to commemorate the nation's centennial in 1876, President Hayes began the tradition of planting commemorative trees. Today, there are more than three dozen such commemorative trees.

In 1902, Edith Roosevelt, along with White House gardener Henry Pfister, designed a colonial garden. However, in 1913 Ellen Wilson, the first wife of Woodrow Wilson, replaced Mrs. Roosevelt's colonial garden with a rose garden on the site of the current rose garden. The West Garden has been known as the Rose Garden ever since. Its signature tree is the Katherine Crab Apple Tree. Also in 1913, Mrs. Wilson brought the landscape designer Beatrix Farrand to the White House to landscape the East Side of the garden, which remains in almost exactly the same form today. President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. in 1935 to redesign the gardens. Today, this plan still serves as the basis for the gardens' layout.

President Kennedy had the Rose Garden, located just outside of the Oval Office, redesigned to use it as a venue for outdoor ceremonies. The East Garden was also redesigned during the Kennedy administration, but not completed until the Johnson administration. It was designed to feature both seasonal flowers and hedges. Lady Bird Johnson then dedicated the East Garden to Jacqueline Kennedy. Since then, the East Garden has been known variously as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, the First Ladies' Garden and the East Garden. In 1969, Lady Bird Johnson created the first Children's Garden at the White House, and in 1971, President Nixon's daughter, Tricia, was married in the Rose Garden. Today, the South Lawn is used for the annual Easter Egg Roll and other large events, and can accommodate over 1,000 spectators. Events that are held in the Rose Garden include the annual pardoning of the turkey, and other presidential ceremonies and speeches. On tours at the White House, one can see flowers such as tulips, hycinths and chrysanthemums in the East Garden. Plants that can be seen in the Rose Garden include magnolia trees, Katherine crab apple trees and a variety of roses.


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