The next presidential election is still years away — and wannabe candidates, strategists, pundits, and newscasters are already weighing in on who will run, what the issues are, and how Americans will vote.
Lately, though, I find myself less concerned with taxes, Obamacare, and the economy and more curious about how the future POTUS will put his — or her — stamp on the White House gardens — and that’s all because of an amazing book, Presidents’ Gardens, by Linda Holden Hoyt.
Utilizing her passion for gardening and history, as well as her experience in the Reagan White House, Ms. Hoyt has delivered a book that is educational, fascinating, and entertaining. Well researched and filled with photos, illustrations, and anecdotes, her work opens the garden gate on a world most of us will otherwise never have had the chance to enter.
Recently, Ms. Hoyt kindly agreed to answer the questions of a very excited gardener and history buff. It seemed that with each response, I had more questions — resulting in a post so long that it needed two parts. Part 2 will appear on Monday — and that’s also when the rules of the giveaway will be revealed.
And so, without further delay, I’d like to introduce you to Linda Holden Hoyt.
NGDM: In your book, Presidents’ Gardens, you follow the Presidents to the White House, where they brought not only their political expertise, but also their gardening expertise. Why was it important to tell the story of Presidents’ gardens?
LHH: Presidents’ Gardens is a unique view into what had previously been the very private outdoor spaces used by the presidents and first ladies. In exploring the gardens and learning about how they were created, I hope readers see the great care in planning and the attention to detail, particularly in how the various regional influences of the presidents and first ladies come into play. There’s also a lot of fun trivia, reproductions of personal letters, and loads of photographs of the gardens, flowers, and plants.
NGDM: There are so many aspects of your book that I truly enjoyed and appreciated. All too often, our nation’s agrarian roots get lost in the history books – and you rectified that. Do you think that that is changing, especially since First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts at growing vegetables at the White House?
LHH: Mrs. Obama is to be commended for her outstanding work in raising awareness about making the connection between growing food, creating meals with fresh vegetables, and eating healthy, putting the White House gardens to very good use. Grace Coolidge [also] loved the gardens and let her menagerie of pets have the run of the grounds. Part of her morning routine included a walk down the garden path, snipping and cutting her favorite flowers and later arranging them in bouquets for display in the family’s second floor living quarters. Edith Roosevelt encouraged her children to plant a flower garden, and, as a mother of five, Eleanor Roosevelt made sure vegetables were plentiful for her children and grandchildren during those lean war years.
NGDM: You also opened up the garden gate, so to speak, to the White House Gardens. It’s a piece of Presidential life that most of us know nothing of — and certainly a world that most of us will never have access to. In your research, was there any one thing that completely surprised you?
LHH: Some of the surprises about the White House grounds were on a grand scale, but many were small things that everyday gardeners have to deal with! The imposing eighteen-foot black wrought iron fence that surrounds the White House grounds seems to offer more of a challenge than a threat when it comes to keeping the unwelcome critters out. For example, imagine you wake up on a beautiful summer morning, go down to the swimming pool, dive in and begin to take your laps. And as you stretch for your next stroke, you realize you aren’t the only one in the pool . . . it’s you and a rat! And, he’s enjoying a morning swim, too! That happened to Barbara Bush who was happily rescued by her husband, who, by wielding a long-handled pool net, lifted the intruder from the pool.
Another critter menace included a pack of raccoons that ran nightly patrols across the South Grounds, making regular meals of the fish swimming in the little pool in the secluded Children’s Garden. The fish didn’t stand much of a chance and neither did the gardeners, who kept trying to catch the nocturnal nuisances.
One story that really grabbed my attention was the one about the sink hole. It happened during the Johnson administration. Right after Marine I, the president’s helicopter, lifted off with President Johnson aboard, a circle of ground gave way leaving a gouge that reached twelve feet deep down into the earth. It was just steps off the driveway, in the path President Johnson had just walked on his way to the helicopter. The timing was incredible! A minute sooner and there could have been real trouble! An investigation revealed the problem was a leaky drain pipe. After a plumbing repair job, Irv Williams, the chief garden honcho, filled the hole and topped it with fresh sod, all completed before the President’s return.
NGDM: This country prides itself on a smooth and seamless transition of power. I guess the same can be said of the White House Gardens, where each first family creates or plants something for future first families to enjoy. Of all the White House inhabitants, who do you think was the most hands-on when it came to gardening and why?
LHH: Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson is a stand out. It seems she was always thinking about what she could plant next. Her love of flowers and gardens created a whirlwind of activity that swirled around her and spread across America. Her legacy is readily visible to tourists on the morning public tours of the White House. Tourists are directed along the east colonnade where there is a magnificent view of the Jacqueline Kennedy garden. Even though the garden is named for Mrs. Kennedy, it’s neat to know that it was created by Mrs. Johnson, who completed the work began by Mrs. Kennedy and honored her by naming the space after her predecessor. As First Lady, Mrs. Johnson actively promoted beautification projects — everywhere! And her family’s lasting gift to the grounds is the sweet hideaway they named the Children’s Garden. Even though the garden is small, it is packed with symbolism. Mrs. Johnson was a great lady and I wish I could have known her. She made this garden for others, for future First Ladies/Grandmothers whom she knew, just as she had in her own experience of becoming a grandmother while First Lady, would love this garden, too.
NGDM: You spent a lot of time in your childhood visiting some of the most historic gardens in the country, such as Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg. What is it about those gardens that attracted you as a child and now as an adult?
LHH: Visits to these gardens were exciting opportunities to walk back into time. To me, the old gardens were wonderful places surrounded by piles of historic buildings, and not the other way around! When my family first moved to Northern Virginia, we had many weekend guests and I was always happy to jump in the car with my Dad as he led visits to the White House, the Mall in DC, and to colonial Virginia, including Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall, Arlington Cemetery, Colonial Williamsburg, and when there was more time, Monticello. We often walked plantations straddling the river’s edge and biked the avenues of Colonial Williamsburg fringed with tidy manicured gardens and long stretches of green lawn. The Virginia presidents shared a love of the land and a love of Virginia.
Today’s Northern Virginia has been swallowed up in office buildings, housing communities and shopping centers, however, the early traditions live on and one place where tradition continues to be serious business is the Garden Club of Virginia. Here one is taught a love of Virginia and how important it is to restore and preserve her many historic gardens. I was a member of the Fairfax Club where I was schooled in the importance of historic garden restoration and love of the land. And as a young woman working in the Reagan White House, I loved seeing the gardens every day. There was always something new — whether it had bloomed there or not! The abundance of flowers and the smell of the freshly turned earth were always a welcome change from the office. And it was fun to imagine the gardens through the years. But I have to say the absolute best was my conversations with the men who tended those gardens. That was the best education ever!