It was a writer’s dream, come true.
Author Linda Jane Holden had arranged a meeting with Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon, an avid amateur and self-taught gardener/horticulturist who was responsible for the redesign of one of the most iconic gardens in the world, the Rose Garden at the White House.
As the relationship between the two women developed, Mellon invited Holden to Oak Spring, her estate in Virginia, and opened up her personal garden library to her. There, among the well-worn books, Holden discovered Mellon’s handwritten notes and garden journals. The result was Holden’s first book about the gardener, The Gardens of Bunny Mellon.
In May 2014, Mellon passed away and Holden consoled her loss by returning to Mellon’s words in her journals, each filled with ideas and suggestions and gardening lessons learned… and then, there it was, a sentence in Mellon’s own scribbled cursive: “I want to write a garden book but haven’t had time.”
Working in collaboration with Thomas Lloyd, Mellon’s grandson, and Bryan Huffman, Mellon’s personal friend and designer, the trio discovered the gardener’s personal photos of her gardening efforts. As the compilation of photos grew, Holden, so familiar with Mellon’s voice, gave new life to the gardener’s design principles and gardening knowledge.
The trio’s result is Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, with a forward by P. Allen Smith. With color photos and rich, descriptive text, the book is both a how-to resource for gardeners of all levels and a celebration of a woman who stepped onto the world stage because she was asked to help her friend, President John F. Kennedy.
“The inspiration for renewing the Rose Garden at the White House came from President Kennedy in 1961. My involvement began at a picnic on a hazy summer day in August at our beach house on Cape Cod, surrounded by sand dunes, the sea, and sailboats. It was a picnic for a few friends and included President and Mrs. Kennedy. Hardly had the President come ashore from his boat when he suggested we sit down and discuss a garden for the White House.” (From “President Kennedy’s Rose Garden,” by Rachel Lambert Mellon.)
If a redesign of the Rose Garden at the White House sounds familiar, it should. The space has had a history of change throughout the past, as well as today. In the summer of 2020, as Secrets was readied for publication, the Rose Garden and Mellon’s design found itself in another of America’s recent political firestorms — the redesign of the garden by Melania Trump. Because this was the first redesign during the Age of Social Media, opinions, facts, and falsehoods were rampant.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Man: As I was preparing questions for you about your book, Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, I found it difficult to dance around Mrs. Trump’s redesign of the Rose Garden. Although this isn’t the first redesign of this area of the White House grounds, it has certainly resonated in the hearts and minds of so many people around the world. I can’t help but think, given the current state of the nation — the pandemic, fires, hurricanes, protests, riots, political polarization — that this particular redesign represents a sort of loss, I think because it was part of a nostalgic time, of summers on Cape Cod, of a President and First Family full of hope and promise, of Camelot, of tragecy. Why do you think there was a resounding outcry from so many people at the redesign, especially since Bunny’s touches appear to have been removed?
Linda Jane Holden: It’s so funny that you should mention Cape Cod. I’m on the Cape right now. I’ve been staying near Bunny’s house in Osterville, which has been pretty cool for me.
One day last week, while boating along Seapuit River, we passed the now famous Mellon’s Picnic House, a charming little outpost on the river. It’s comprised of a large room with a fireplace and a deck that reaches towards the river’s edge. There’s a dock where President Kennedy tied up his boat the day he and Jackie came to the Mellon’s for a picnic — the same day he surprised Bunny by asking her to make a garden at the White House.
For many years I’ve been drawn to Bunny’s humble and low-key manner. A self-described amateur gardener, she was surprised when JFK asked her to make this garden. Hesitant at first, she leaned on the roots formed during her childhood summers spent with her maternal Grandfather, Arthur Lowe, at his birthplace farm in Rindge, NH. For Lowe, what mattered most was family, hard work, being a regular at Sunday service — and love of country. For Bunny, seeds of this glowing patriotism and love of country, deepened in the soil of the Rose Garden at the White House.
People often called the Rose Garden, Jackie’s Garden. It wasn’t. It was President Kennedy’s Garden — through and through. The steps, the parade of colorful seasonal colors, and the grassy turf, these were all his garden wish list. Not hers.
Bunny, a student of history, adhered to the Olmsted Landscape Plan, supposedly the White House landscape “Bible,” created for Franklin Roosevelt, which describes how the classically designed house was to be integrated with the landscape. This plan called for flowers to be contained in two symmetrical pleasure gardens on the east and west sides of the classically styled house.
In this context, Bunny created symmetrical plantings in each garden — ten holly trees in the garden to the East, formally known as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, and ten Katherine crab apple trees to the west, in the Rose Garden.
Bunny also sought to soften the surrounding white architecture and she did that with trees. The trees were chosen for their form and structure, and for the way the light filtered through the branches to the floral plantings below.
Irvin Williams, who gardened with Bunny at the White House, and, who years later, taught me so much about the gardens, always said that flowers aren’t political. They’re flowers! But then again, he also said that the Kennedy garden design could never be changed.
NGDM: How fortunate that you stumbled upon Mrs. Mellon’s handwritten sentence that she’d like to write a garden book but she hasn’t had the time — which I found so interesting, because she was already writing and gardening and, I’m sure, had connections in publishing circles. All of the ingredients were there. What stopped her and what went through your mind as you read her vision for her book? How daunting of a task was it for you?
LJH: I don’t know what stopped Bunny, I could guess, but I do know what stopped me. As I was reading her words that day, my heart began to beat faster, and my thoughts raced wildly, moving quickly from wishing she had written her book, to wishing someone else would — to knowing — just knowing, that it was something I was supposed to do — and being startled at the prospect.
However, once I “owned” the project, I got right to work. I was also teaching in a public high school full-time. My father was ill and my dog was old. At first it was thrilling to immerse myself in Bunny’s writings, her books, and to pick apart her thoughts and ideas. But then it became work! As I moved along, the project continued to expand, and at times felt overwhelming. The volume of material — and paper — grew and grew. This is why she didn’t write the book — she was busy with her many projects. There were moments when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. It’s a bad habit I have — jumping into the deep end, realizing too late just how deep the water is, and then having to paddle for dear life.
NGDM: Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon isn’t your first book about Bunny Mellon. You first introduced her to so many people in The Gardens of Bunny Mellon. What sets this latest effort apart from the first, and what is it about Mrs. Mellon — aside from her passion for gardening — that has so captivated you?
LJH: As a young girl, I had been interested in American history and life at the White House. I spent hours cutting out pictures from Life magazine and pasting them into scrapbooks. As a teenager, my interests broadened to gardens, landscaping and the decorative arts. I read Upstairs and Backstairs at the White House, and anything I could get my hands on. I still remember the cover of the Calling All Girls magazine issue on the coffee table at my piano teacher’s house. It featured “Those Girls in the White House,” which were Lynda and Luci Johnson [LBJ’s daughters] at the time.
Then, I spent all those years in the 1980s, when I worked in the West Wing at the White House, learning from Mr. Williams, the head gardener at the White House, about the gardens and life there. Mrs. Mellon had brought him to the White House to help her make the rose garden, and he was the one who later “introduced” me to Bunny Mellon. Mr. Williams shared with me the history of the Rose Garden and described how he and Bunny had worked together. They had also landscaped President Kennedy’s gravesite, which I visited in 1963 and 1964 with my father. Mr. Williams brought history to life for me. In 2009, Mr. Williams and I picked up where we left off, and that led to my first meeting with Mrs. Mellon at Oak Spring.
Along the way I’ve made many friends, two of whom co-authored Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon with me. Thomas Lloyd, Mrs. Mellon’s grandson, and Bryan Huffman, who was great friends with her for the last ten years of her life. Secrets is the book I wanted to write in the beginning. The 176 pages are filled with Bunny’s own photography from Thomas’s family archives, and the text is written from Bunny’s garden journals, more of which I had access to the second time around. Reading through the pages of Secrets is like walking with Bunny through her gardens, and hearing her thoughts, ideas, and why she did what she did along the way.
We dedicated Secrets to Bunny, but it’s written to the wonderful audiences who attended all the book signings around the world for the Gardens of Bunny Mellon. These fabulous individuals kept asking for “more.” This is “more!”
NGDM: Ever since the start of the quarantine in March, I’ve become a sucker for quotes — always looking for inspiration and encouragement in the words of others to help get through the days. I think Mrs. Mellon’s own words, literally her Garden Secrets, fall into that category, which is why it’s terrific that you’ve also put together a sort of companion book, Bunny Mellon Garden Journal, for gardeners to keep their own notes while enjoying Mrs. Mellon’s sketches and quotes. This one, for example, is perfect for today’s world: “If once you fall under the spell of gardening, of growing things. . . you will carry forever a cure that will serve you well in life.” What is one of your favorite quotes or tips and why?
LJH: That’s one of my favorite quotes, too. From the moment I first stepped into her Oak Spring garden, I’ve felt as though a spell had been cast. However, when I look back, it was really all those years ago, in the Rose Garden, when it began. Extraordinary beauty does take a hold of us.
I’ve spent years pondering her quote, “Nothing Should be Noticed,” figuring out what she meant by that statement, and how I can apply it to my own life. Because, the truth is, some things need to be noticed. And she is someone who needs to be noticed. This conviction spurred me on — through the late nights, the writing and rewriting — all of it. I felt she should be noticed. There was so much to be learned from her, not only aesthetically but philosophically, as well. Just the idea of what she had done for her country — but no one knew!
NGDM: Her original note on how she envisioned her gardening book sounded as if she wanted it to be accessible to gardeners of all levels. As I read Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, I kept reflecting on that. Personally, I fell in love with her herb trees (photo above) and the wooden trees (photo below) she created on Nantucket, since the wind made it nearly impossible to grow trees. What do you see as the takeaways for the average gardener who doesn’t have Mrs. Mellon’s wealth or canvas, but who gardens on a terrace or in a suburban backyard?
LJH: I have gardened for many years. One of my “takeaways” from Bunny Mellon is to treat all the space — as my garden — even the next door neighbor’s house, the borrowed landscaped. My brother, David, put this thinking into action when he asked his neighbor if he could give him a tree to plant in a place in the neighbor’s yard, that frames David’s view, and not the neighbors. This is where it really helps to be on good terms with your neighbor! The neighbor agreed and ended up liking David’s replacement tree more than his own! It was a happy ending.
Many people tell me they could never have a garden like Mrs. Mellon’s. Personally, I love it when people make this comment because it gives me an opportunity to share one really important fact — she wouldn’t want anyone to do exactly what she did. She would see no point whatsoever in that. It’s precisely the thing not to do! Bunny believed in a sense of place, and that a garden should reflect the taste of the homeowner of the garden. For instance, the garden she made for JFK at the White House was very different from the gardens she made for herself and her family. He wanted a bold and brilliant palette, and she preferred soothing colors.
Bunny always looked for inspiration in her designs, and hoped that perhaps she could pay it forward, that someone might find inspiration in a garden she had created. People on the public tours at the White House used to pass by the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which gave thousands and thousands of people an opportunity to be inspired by a Bunny Mellon garden.
NGDM: Over the years, you’ve been kind enough to offer your books as giveaways. Whether they’re about Bunny Mellon or Presidents’ Gardens, they’re always about gardens and gardening. One of Mrs. Mellon’s earliest memories was when she asked her father for a plot of ground at her family’s New Jersey estate. When you’re not writing, do you garden? What is one of your earliest gardening memories?
LJH: Trees. I remember when I was about five years old, I loved to sit beneath a large pine tree in the neighborhood, lean my back up against the craggy bark, and gaze upwards through the branches to the sky above. I’m not exactly sure why, I just liked being there.
Also, there was a stand of birch trees I passed every day on the walk home from school, their white knobby bark captured my interest. And there was a giant tree on the playground of my elementary school. It functioned as “base” when we were playing tag, or as a backdrop to whatever we were conjuring up during those wonderful recesses. Believe it or not, I’ve gone back to visit that tree.
I’ve always loved being outside, stepping in the puddles after the rain, crunching the dry leaves in fall, and making “angels” in the snow.
I like weather — and, what I mean by that is, if it’s raining, I like it; if it’s snowing, I’m happy; and if the sun is shining, that’s great, too!