The Importance of Gardens in Early America

Why did the new United States of America need gardens? After all not everyone has gardens today. And does anyone care? Today almost everyone has a mobile phone and we could honestly live without one. So, why is it essential that we have one? Every youth measures his/her worth and how well he/she fits-in by having or not having just the right mobile phone. Well, the young Unites States was no different.

Gardens were needed in the early years of the United States and especially at the President’s House to impress Europe’s Heads of State; to show that the new nation could compete; that it was civilized; that it was prosperous. European countries all had vast, beautiful gardens of different designs:

  • Versailles
  • Hampton Court
  • Het Loo (Netherlands)
  • Boboli Gardens
  • Isola Gardens

So, the new States must have them, too.

In the new nation, everyone in rural areas had small farms or tilled the soil. Everyone, even in towns, had at least a small garden. Kitchen gardens were an economic necessity. Flowers and shrubs and trees were a social expectation (like our cell phones today).

The early U.S. presidents were all farmers; farming was in their blood. So, of course the President’s House should have gardens and landscaping. It was only natural!!

There were many different kinds of garden/landscaping designs initially proposed for the new President’s House. The exact kind of garden/landscaping that the President’s House should have was fiercely debated then and has been debated and debated many times since 1800. And it is constantly changing based on the times, the customs and the needs of the nation --- and on the president in charge of the House.

George Washington (1st President of the Unite States, 1789-1797) understood the importance of landscaping at the President’s House. John Adams (2nd President of the United States 1797-1800) did too. But the two men and other early presidents seemed to disagree on even the shape of the President’s House property --- should it be straight or curved? And about the fences that did or did not border it --- should they be stone? Or iron? Perhaps a border of trees would be better? These items were frequently changed and re-changed as new presidents took office, depending on their interests in landscaping.

President George Washington envisioned a president’s mansion that rivaled Versailles built on 82 acres. What was ultimately created was about ¼ of this size with no cascading gardens. But, there were provisions for gardens around the President’s House. President Washington never lived in the President’s House but he oversaw the early construction of the House.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant was chosen by President Washington to create a plan of the design of DC. L’Enfant and President Washington envisioned formal gardens cascading to the Tiber Creek--- among other things. Unfortunately, these cascading gardens never happened.

President John Adams did not live in the President’s House long enough to landscape it. He lived there only 4 months (November to March), arriving on Saturday, November 1, 1800 at 1:00pm. When President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved in, the White House was incomplete and barely habitable, containing little furniture. The grounds were barren and mud-locked when it rained. Workmen’s shacks, bricks and tools were scattered everywhere.

Adam’s only gardening demand was that the President’s House have a vegetable garden to grow food for the coming winter.

But the President’s House needed gardens that spoke of the prominence of the new nation.

The first thing President Jefferson (3rd President of the United States, 1801-1809) did to improve the landscape of the White House was to remove the outhouse outside the door of the house and build two water closets inside the house. Then he converted some of the construction sheds to houses for the goats, sheep and chickens. The animals could freely wander the grounds at will. (This is tough on gardens!)

Then he constructed a stone fence around the White House and constructed an arch --- “Jefferson’s arc of Triumph” --- flanked on either side by weeping willow trees, to the southeast of the White House and designated this the main point of entry to the grounds.

President Jefferson then made extensive plans to landscape the President’s House and did a mass planting of trees. He designated different uses for the north and south sides of the house --- north was to be pubic side for tourist and private citizens who called on the president, even without appointments. The south side of the House was not accessible to the general public. It was reserved for the arrival of dignitaries.

But Jefferson never got around to executing the rest of his plans, like planting ornamental gardens.

And the President’s House still needed gardens that showed of the prominence of the new nation.  It was not until John Quincy Adams became our 6th President of the United Sates that real passion and attention were given to the White House Gardens. (You can learn more about his gardens by Musing with a White House Gardener in our John Ousley walk.)

If you think about it, this whole scenario is pretty comparable to the development of our mobile phones --- only creating the White House gardens took much longer!