Who Was John Ousley?

  • John Ousley was the first person formally hired to be the White House gardener.

  • He held the position as White House gardener from 1825–1852. That’s a long time! He was, indeed, a White House fixture!

  • He served Presidents John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce. Whew!

  • He was an Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1818 in the state of New Jersey.

  • He loved gardening and the care it takes to make things grow. He easily spouted off the botanical/scientific names for all the plants under his care.

  • He really enjoyed working in the dirt with President John Quincy Adams. They planted trees together.

  • During the 1830’s Mr. Ousley won several prizes at the exhibitions of the Columbian Horticultural Society.

  • Little is known of him after he left his employ at the White House.

Why Should I Care About the White House Gardens?

Oh, my! First of all, beautiful gardens bring music to the soul! It’s just impossible to be “down” amidst a beautiful garden!

Secondly, a study of gardens is a study of cultural and social trends and traditions. It’s a way to get a snapshot of life through the years. The types of plants used in a garden and how they were arranged tell much about the culture and the lifestyle of the times in which they existed. The White House grounds have gone from swamp land and land on which cows and pigs grazed to the home of beautiful trees and formal arrangements of flowers and bushes. Today the grounds once again include kitchen gardens—a.k.a. vegetable gardens.

Here’s some information about gardens and gardening when Mr. Ousley worked at the White House—

  • Our early U.S. presidents had been farmers. Farming was in their blood. So, of course, the new White House should have gardens and landscaping. It was only natural!

  • In the new United States, everyone in rural areas had small farms and everyone in towns had vegetable gardens. Kitchen gardens were an economic necessity. Flower gardens were a social expectation.

  • In the early years of the new nation, gardens were needed at the White House to impress European heads of state. They were a way to show that the new nation was civilized and could compete with the great European countries. Most European nations had vast and beautiful gardens—

—  Versailles (France)

—  Hampton Court (England)

—  Het Loo (Netherlands)

—  Boboli Gardens (Italy)

—  Isola Bella (Italy)

  • President George Washington never lived in the White House but he had plans and visions for it. His vision was for a mansion with grounds that would rival Versailles.

  • The first thing President Thomas Jefferson (third U. S. President) did to improve the landscaping at the White House was to remove two outhouses outside the White House door and build two water closets inside the White House. Later he created extensive plans to landscape around the White House and did a mass planting of trees.

  • When John Ousley left his employ at the White House, cut flowers used as arrangements inside the House had not become popular so flowers were not yet grown for that purpose.

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