white house gardens

Having sheep graze on the White House lawn was President Woodrow Wilson’s way of saving on the manpower needed to maintain the grounds when the able-bodied were called to fight in World War I. The sheep also were prized for their wool and mutton. / Courtesy of the White House

This is the third and final segment on the White House gardens. Read more on Michelle Obama’s Edible Legacy and How the White House gardens have changed over time. 

“They (White House gardens) can tell us a lot about who lived there and the time in which they lived,” said Peter Hatch, retired director of gardens and grounds for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

He was responsible for authentically restoring the gardens at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello. And over the years, he has been involved with the White House Grounds, the oldest continually maintained landscape in the United States.

There’s a lot of history at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. Some of it is offbeat — and even a little strange. Here are some things you might not know about the gardens at the president’s home.

White House / Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

Pauline Wayne roamed the White House grounds during the Taft administration. / Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

Going to the dogs … and cows

There have been plenty of animals at the White House, including Barack and Michelle Obama’s dogs, Bo and Sunny. But William Howard Taft (1909-1913) took it a step further by housing Pauline Wayne, a Holstein cow, on the grounds.

She was an eager contributor to his administration — providing fresh milk and butter. The animal, a gift from Sen. Isaac Stephenson from Wisconsin, was the last cow to fertilize the White House grounds, according to Marta McDowell, writing in All the Presidents’ Gardens (Timber Press, 2016).

Can a president live in a palace?

We all know the president’s residence as the “White House.” But when it was first envisioned by George Washington and Peter L’Enfant, a French architect who had served with Washington during the American Revolution, it was dubbed the “President’s Palace.”

Over time, however, L’Enfant’s plans for the house and grounds were deemed too grandiose for this country, where we had fought for freedom from kings and crowns. His plans were scaled back, and the house came to be known as the “President’s House” and, later, the White House.

Don’t be sheepish

After Woodrow Wilson became the president (1913-1921), World War I broke out, and the country needed its resources for the long fight ahead. That’s when he let 20 Hampshire sheep graze on the White House lawn.

They saved labor by keeping the grass mowed, and they supplied mutton and wool that was auctioned to help the American Red Cross, according to author McDowell.

You can’t get to the White House gardens from here

You might think you can get a ticket and view the White House gardens just about any day of the week. And that’s true, if you want to see them through the fence from the sidewalk.

But if you want to smell a rose, see bees buzz in the peavines or enjoy the ducks in the South Fountain, you can only visit for a weekend — and then only semi-annually.

Because the 2016 tours are over with the last one in October, you’ll have to wait for spring 2017. Visit Whitehouse.gov for more information.

Oh, deer!

President Harry Truman popularized the slogan “The buck stops here,” which appeared on a sign he kept on his desk in the Oval Office. It isn’t surprising that a statue of a buck appeared outside the windows of that office during his administration and remains to this day, according to McDowell.


In 1913, First Lady Ellen Wilson began planting roses in the garden adjoining the Colonnade, and the Rose Garden was born. It was redesigned during John Kennedy’s administration to serve as a presidential reception area. / Official White House photo (showing Barack Obama) by Samantha Appleton

Roses are red, and gnomes are, well, gnomes

The White House Rose Garden has been a popular backdrop for everything from presidential addresses and bill-signings to weddings, such as that of Tricia Nixon to Edward Cox in 1971. And for many, it seems like the Rose Garden has always been there.

According to whitehouse.archives.gov, though, it got its start in 1913 when First Lady Ellen Wilson planted roses on a site that had previously been a colonial garden. But it wasn’t until the John F. Kennedy administration that the Rose Garden as we know it took shape.

Although the Kennedys tended to prefer French amenities, the Rose Garden is a traditional 18th-century American garden.

And every summer on July 1, garden gnomes are placed here. Their number represents the number of presidents still living, according to Wikipedia.

Bee careful

Deciding to bring a beehive into the Obamas’ Kitchen Garden in 2009 was one thing. Finding a place to put it was another.

The hive had to be set up high, so that its entrance was above the children who might visit the garden; and away from Bo, the family dog.

So it was placed on a wooden stand and set to face in the opposite direction from the basketball court. This reduced the chances the bees would disturb the president’s game.

It also had to be strapped securely so that down- and up-drafts from the president’s helicopter wouldn’t disturb the insects when Marine One was landing on, or taking off from, the White House grounds.

Making changes

You may wonder how much control each new presidential family has over what is planted in the White House gardens. Well, don’t worry. The president can’t visit a big-box store for plants, pick up a shovel and go to work in the middle of the South Lawn.

Instead, the White House gardens are under the care of the National Park Service. The service follows a plan that was established by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. in 1935, during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. Olmsted is the son of the landscape architect who designed, in 1858, Central Park in New York.

“It’s a long-standing plan that I don’t think anyone is considering changing,” said author/historian McDowell.

But if major changes are desired, the U.S. Fine Arts Commission, an independent federal agency that advises the government on matters of design and aesthetics, would probably review them before a shovel or backhoe is ever set to dirt.

A new First Family will inhabit the White House beginning early next year. Let’s see what, if any, changes to the gardens Donald and Melania Trump will make.