white house gardens

The White House Conservatory, built during President James Buchanan’s administration, stood on the grounds of what is today the West Colonnade and West Wing. / From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Michelle Obama’s was just the latest in a long line of White House gardens. In fact, the history of planting vegetables in this historic landscape dates back to the beginning of our country.

While George Washington was in office, the White House was under construction (1792-1800). Because its yard was a mess of men, materials and mud, not much got planted. Washington’s term ended in 1797, so he never lived there.

It was his successor, President John Adams, who first lived in the house (he was elected in 1796 but lost his 1800 bid for re-election). Late in his presidency, he moved into the new White House and had the land plowed and fertilized in the hopes of planting a small vegetable garden.


But voters had different ideas. Because he lost the 1800 election, he left office only four months after the garden was planted. And the produce was never harvested.

Next, Thomas Jefferson moved into the house on the hill that was still surrounded by rough land. He enclosed a small area near the house with split-rail fencing and then added groves of trees.

According to Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds emeritus for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Jefferson had his gardener bring endive plants from Monticello when he moved to Washington, D.C. Surely, that endive occupied the salad bowl on the president’s table.

Had to buy their own food

Filling the dining table, at the lowest cost, was important to the early presidents, who were expected to pay for their entire food budget — even if they entertained diplomats.

“They were paying for the dining room themselves,” explained Marta McDowell, author of All the Presidents’ Gardens (Timber Press, 2016).

When James Madison moved into the White House in 1809, he ordered seeds from a man in Philadelphia. The order went out in July for the fall harvest of crops such as cabbages, turnips and beets.

“I don’t have a lot of other information about his garden, other than his seed order,” said McDowell. But we can assume that the seeds were planted and that the president, his family and his guests consumed and enjoyed the harvests.

War of 1812 interrupts the White House gardens

Madison’s gardening days came to an end in 1814 when the British burned the White House and, most likely, destroyed the grounds too.

By 1825, John Quincy Adams was serving as the sixth president. When he got to the White House, he planted fruit trees, herbs and vegetables from seeds he had collected during his travels.

And it wasn’t just vegetables that were grown. President Andrew Jackson, who entered the White House in 1829, built an “orangery” for growing tropical fruits year round.

But by 1857, it had been demolished when a full-scale greenhouse was built. In 1902, it too was demolished and replaced by the West Wing of the White House.

The next time we know of a president planting a vegetable patch is during Abraham Lincoln’s tenure, from 1861-1865. Historians such as author McDowell have found bills for seeds that he and Mary Todd most likely grew, including tomatoes, eggplants, radishes, cucumbers, York cabbages, cherry peppers, squash, blood turnips and many others.

hartz-aerial-white-house-grounds

An aerial view of the White House gardens, designed by landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957). His design is still the guide by which decisions about the gardens are made. / Contributed

White House Gardens virtually disappear for decades

After Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, vegetables appeared to go out of style at the White House, according to McDowell. And by the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to office in 1933, only mint for iced tea was grown in the White House garden, she said.

However, with the onset of World War II, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had a Victory Garden planted. It doesn’t look like she got “down and dirty.” History tells us she turned the job over to Diana Hopkins, a girl who at the time was living in the White House with her stepmother and her father, an adviser to FDR.

Private citizens help

These Victory Gardens caught on, and proved important to the war effort. U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys showed that 42 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in 1943 came from these gardens, also called “War Gardens.” “Even the small gardens help,” said FDR in a 1944 statement.

Following the war, supermarkets became more popular than farmers markets, and the presidents seemed to prefer more formal gardens than food crops.

That is, until First Lady Michelle Obama went to her daughters’ pediatrician and found out her family should be eating a fresher, more nutritious diet.

That’s when she put a White House Kitchen Garden on her wish list. Of course, her dream came true in 2009. Hatch, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s retired director of gardens and grounds, was there when Obama planted the garden for the final time, this year, since the family will be leaving the residence.

“For me personally,” said Hatch, “To go to the White House and plant a garden with schoolchildren in soil that is teeming with beautiful earthworms is conformation of the human spirit.”

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on the White House gardens. Part 3 will tell you some surprising things you may not know about these plots. Part 1 covered Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden.