Some conversations are too big to fit into a single post. That’s how it was when I communicated with Linda Holden Hoyt, author of the very fascinating Presidents’ Gardens. Just like the book, the interview was filled with anecdotes and historical tidbits, as well as Ms. Hoyt’s warm recollections of her experience in the White House gardens.
NGDM: What was your role in the Reagan administration?
LHH: I worked on President Reagan’s staff and had an office in the West Wing, so I enjoyed a beautiful view of the ever-changing White House grounds and I pinched myself in the morning when I walked through the gates on the way to work and again in the evening when I left for home.
NGDM: When you were a young girl visiting Presidential gardens, did you ever dream that someday you would be working in the White House?
LHH: No, but as a child I spent a lot of time cutting and pasting pictures of the White House and the presidents into a scrapbook. I’d flip through magazines like Life and Calling All Girls, collected from my grandmother and piano teacher. When visiting the White House, I remember wanting to run up the stairs to see what was up there! In my teen years, I read Backstairs at the White House, Upstairs at the White House and anything like it I could get my hands on. History is really important to me — especially the “story” part — I love the stories of the people who impacted history.
NGDM: You mentioned [in Part 1 of the interview] the conversations you had with the men who tended the gardens. Did you pick up any gardening tips from Irv Williams or Dale Haney?
LHH: Yes, almost everyone in the White House, including President Reagan, loved to talk about gardening with Irv, who was “master of the grounds” and seemed to know every blade of grass! He also was a great historian of the grounds and gave me an appreciation for how the grounds and gardens told a story from: Thomas Jefferson’s garden wall to Andrew Jackson’s orangery to Abraham Lincoln’s horse stables. And, for Irv, details mattered! Whether it was prolonging the life of John Quincy Adams’ elm tree, rescuing Andrew Jackson’s magnolia trees from destruction after a private airplane slid into the south side of the old mansion walls — yes, that did happen — or grooming the thousands of tulips that anchored the spring display. A day’s work could involve filling a sink hole, trapping raccoons, dead-heading the geraniums, or constructing elaborate designs for an upcoming event — not to mention the endless trips to the White House greenhouses over at Kenilworth. For years I peppered him with question after question about gardening as he did the planting, weeding, cultivating and pruning.
I also learned that gardening was a constant balancing act of design and nature. Nancy Reagan especially liked the color coral and the staff enjoyed creating seasonal displays with coral themes in the gardens. I learned from Irv how to cope with the fickle Washington climate and I can still hear Dale voicing his assessment of the single color flowerbeds, “We need some white for relief!” I think of Dale every time I see a bed planted with just one color. They carried on an endless battle with the starlings and installed loud squawk boxes that seemed to keep the people away more than the birds! Irv and Dale were amazing professional gardeners, enthusiastic collaborators, and first-rate gentlemen.
NGDM: Now it’s time to dish some dirt . . . When I’m in a meeting, there are times when my eyes drift to the window and I start thinking — wishing — that I could be in the garden. A President must have that same experience. Which President do you think was most likely to put a meeting on hold in order to get into the garden?
LHH: One of my favorite garden “escape” stories involves President Johnson, who famously used the telephone as a tool. His staff says he was always on the phone and kept one within arm’s reach at all times. Except this once!
On one of the early days when the Johnson staff was new to the Presidency and the Oval Office, one of President Johnson’s secretaries was standing at the office door doing a little wishing herself. She was looking out into the Rose Garden when President Johnson walked into the office and asked what she was doing. When he heard she was curious to see the gardens, he instructed the White House operator to put all the calls on hold and led the whole office on a walk around the grounds to explore their new digs. I’m not sure what was more memorable: the tour or the fact he had all the calls put on hold. (And it is fun to imagine him today with a few cell phones in his pocket!)
When the Johnsons were at their ranch in Texas, every evening after dinner the President would gather the family, guests, and staff and take a walk down the ranch road that winds along a grove of gorgeous live oaks and the Pedernales River to the family cemetery; he would point out the pecan grove, the house where he was born, and the place where he’d be buried. It was an evening ritual.
NGDM: How about you? While you were inside the White House, did you look for any reason to get outside—to maybe do some weeding or to stop and smell the roses?
LHH: All the time! I loved the gardens and was fascinated by how vibrant, changing, and alive they were, and as a gardener myself, I couldn’t believe that I never saw any weeds! When walking through the door of the West Wing the change was noticeable — it was like stepping into somewhere very, very special. In the early morning hours, the ground was still wet with dew and later in the afternoon the butterflies fluttered from flower to flower. The change of seasons brought a continuous show. In springtime, fritillaries stood in the beds by the steps, carpets of tulips flowed like a sea of tranquility, and the flowering magnolias scented the air. Summer brought patriotic reds, whites, and blues, and in the autumn there were bursts of yellow chrysanthemums. In winter, the garden was brought inside for Christmas. One year, the great cross hallway and the East Room on the first floor of the house were filled with Christmas trees flocked with “snow.” And a miracle happened every year in the blue room, when the tallest tree in the country was wired to the ceiling so it could stand like a throne in the middle of the blue room.
NGDM: Do you think the gridlock in Washington could be solved if both sides of the aisle would just get in the garden and start digging and weeding and planting? Or do you think that they’d squabble about what vegetables or flowers should be planted near each other — leaving us with fallow ground?
LHH: I can tell you that Presidents loved their outdoor spaces and used them as a place to stop, think, and reflect. Perhaps a stroll outside across the Capitol lawn — a glorious arboretum of American trees — would provide relief to weary workers and bring renewed perspective. A bit of pruning and trimming may also be in order, too!
You can get a peek inside Presidents’ Gardens by visiting Shire Books Blog.
Or . . .
You can receive your own copy of Presidents’ Gardens by commenting below. You can say hello, talk about what’s happening in your garden, or let the voting public know what you would plant in the White House Gardens if you were President. For a second chance to win, you can also leave a comment on NGDM’s Facebook page.
Entries must be received by Saturday, August 24 — so I can let you know the name of the winner on Sunday.