Gardener-in-Chief: U.S. Presidents and the White House Gardens

Which U.S. Presidents
Were Avid Gardeners?

Our Founding Fathers were “passionate botanists,” according to The New York Times.

In fact, the 18 acres that surround the White House have been re-created several times over the centuries. In honor of Presidents’ Day, let’s take a look at the Chief Executives who best displayed a love for gardening, beginning with the first.

Washington’s Vision

Presidents as gardeners

Creative Commons Photo, Public Domain

In her book All the President’s Gardens, historian Marta McDowell describes George Washington as a bit “plant-crazy, like most serious gardeners.” In his own gardens at Mount Vernon, Washington planted specimens of trees native to each region of the newly formed United States.

In addition to his Mount Vernon gardens, Washington also purchased the land for what is now the South Lawn for the White House. (Although he never lived to see his vision for the White House gardens realized.)

America’s Patron Saint?

Presidents as gardeners

Creative Commons Photo by m01229

Garden Collage Magazine has dubbed Thomas Jefferson as “America’s patron saint of gardening” because of his famous gardens at Monticello.

But despite his reputation as an impassioned horticulturist, Jefferson actually scaled back the presidential gardens, so as to reinforce his ideas about small government. He reduced the gardens’ footprint by 70 acres from the original “palace-like plans,” to a more democratic public common.

In his retirement, Jefferson undertook numerous gardening projects, documenting the planting of 500 varieties of fruits and vegetables.

First White House Gardeners

According to the White House Historical Association, James Monroe faced the daunting task of redeveloping the White House gardens after an 1814 fire destroyed them.

Presidents as gardeners

Bureau of Engraving and Printing Images, Public Domain

Monroe hired Charles Bizet, who is widely considered the first official White House gardener. From 1817 to 1825, under Monroe’s direction, Bizet accelerated efforts to plant more trees.

John Quincy Adams was another enthusiastic gardener who is credited with developing the first White House flower garden. Adams also “had a thing for trees,” according to Architectural Digest. He collected acorns, chestnuts, and elm samaras to plant and monitor their growth.

To assist him in these efforts, Adams called on two full-time White House gardeners.

Scaping the Land

Presidents as gardeners

Public Domain Image

Although he wasn’t much of a botanist like some of his predecessors, Ulysses S. Grant did seem to appreciate the beauty of landscaping. The White House Historical Association reports that Grant appointed a friend to transform the White House grounds into beautiful gardens, planting trees and installing pools with fountains.

Grant also expanded the grounds to the south, where his wife began hosting garden parties in the 1870s.

Living Tributes

The tradition of planting commemorative trees for each president and state of the union can be traced back to Rutherford B. Hayes. According to the White House Historical Association, “more than three dozen special commemorative trees…cover the grounds surrounding President’s Park.”

These include white oaks planted during FDR’s and Herbert Hoover’s administrations, a scarlet oak planted by Benjamin Harrison, and a sugar maple planted by Ronald Reagan.

Flower Power Presidents

A few presidents demonstrated a particular fondness for flowers. For instance, Grover Cleveland, the only president to marry in the White House, ordered extensive floral decorations for his wedding.

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These included banks of palms; columns draped with garlands of greenery as well as red, white and blue roses and carnations. In addition, there were hearths full of red begonias, asters and pansies; and chandeliers decorated with roses.

V for Victory Gardens

Smithsonian Institution Photo, Public Domain

During World War I, Woodrow Wilson installed a demonstration victory garden, to encourage Americans to participate in food production. The location he chose was just off the White House grounds. That’s because he maintained a herd of 20 sheep to keep the lawn closely shorn while much of the nation’s workforce was off at war.

The wool from these animals — 98 pounds of it — was auctioned to benefit the American Red Cross.

National Flower Proclamation

Ronald Reagan enjoyed spending time in the White House Rose Garden, feeding acorns to the squirrels who frequented the place. In 1985, Ronald Reagan proclaimed the rose the official national flower of the United States.

Reagan Library Archives Photo, Public Domain

“The American people have long held a special place in their hearts for roses. Let us continue to cherish them, to honor the love and devotion they represent, and to bestow them on all we love just as God has bestowed them on us.

“The Congress, by Senate Joint Resolution 159, has designated the rose as the National Floral Emblem of the United States and authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation declaring this fact.

“NOW, THEREFORE, I, RONALD REAGAN, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim the rose as the National Floral Emblem of the United States of America.”

Read the entire proclamation here.


It was an appropriate choice, as the rose is the one flower that has united all the U.S. presidents throughout the centuries.



Featured Image: Official White House Photo, Public Domain

The New York Times

Cheat Sheet

Architectural Digest

Garden Collage Magazine

White House Historical Association

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