Freedom to Read: Presidents’ Gardens Book Review

presidents gardens book review

Take it from a Texas gardener—July is a time to quit gardening and hit the books! With all in place from spring gardening’s planting flurry, let summer’s heat lead you to retreat, and may your garden become a gorgeous backdrop to reading a great book. My personal pick this summer: All the Presidents’ Gardens by Marta McDowell. This book is a view of American history indulging the gardener’s heart! I thoroughly enjoyed the insight that McDowell’s research reveals—the interests, affections, and inspirations that our presidents and first ladies had as they stewarded America’s first garden. Written endearingly, informatively, the book is both a reference and a delight, full of more than a few surprises to enjoy.

A Few Favorite Surprises Reading All the Presidents’ Gardens

Thomas Jefferson’s restraint. McDowell dubs Thomas Jefferson “America’s patron saint of gardening,” one of my favorite quips of the book. Our third president’s personal chronicles of his planning and planting at Monticello, his private residence now a public garden, give us a good understanding of his devotion and love affair for gardening. However, Jefferson restrained his personal interest in reverence to public stewardship.

“Jefferson stood for small government. He was bounded by budget and avoided federal debt, ironic for a man whose personal finances were often precarious. He outlined the grounds around the president’s house first with a rail fence, then with a wall and gate, limiting its territory. He cut off seventy-plus acres that L’Enfant had designated for the presidential palace, designating it as a more democratic public common. That left five acres to constitute the grounds of the house (which later expanded to eighteen acres.)”

—Marta McDowell, All the Presidents’ Gardens, page 40

This point was a surprise to learn, and simultaneously a personal reminder; I find with gardening, the beauty, whim, and intrigue of it all—plant varieties, cultivars, endless seed packets and bulb catalogs—it can be very tempting to overspend! However, if a garden-loving president can reduce the gracious grounds of the White House from 70 to 5 acres, than I can find contentment in modesty if need be.

I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:11-13 HCSB

Teddy Roosevelt’s floriculture. McDowell gives nearly a play-by-play of the White House grounds development and expansion over 200 years, with a complete list of plant species available in the index. Her telling is both factual and familial, and I was charmed to read of President Theodore Roosevelt’s love of White House flowers. I have long admired the stories of his family’s antics (and by them was inspired to have a large family of my own!); what fun it was to read the former Rough Rider had a special affection for the gardens’ floral display.

“Theodore Roosevelt came close to being “bully on flowers.” One May evening, Roosevelt wrote to his eldest son, Ted: “I think I get more fond of flowers every year. The grounds are now at that high stage of beauty in which they will stay for the next two months.” He described the spring flowers, bright in the cool sunshine at the White House. “The buckeyes are in bloom, the pink dogwood, and the fragrant lilacs, which are almost the loveliest of the bushes; and then the flowers, including the lily-of-the-valley.”

—Marta McDowell, All the Presidents’ Gardens, page 148-49

McDowell goes on to relay the joys President and Mrs. Roosevelt shared together in their love of the garden, spending time there together, patterning the scene described in Song of Songs as Lover and Beloved venture to the landscape to spy the flowers and fruits:

Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.
Song of Songs 7:12 KJV

Jacqueline Kennedy’s playfulness. The heart of garden storytelling is the who-how-why and by-what-whim lovely landscapes come together. McDowell’s insider’s glances to the garden design decisions at the White House do not disappoint! I found it touching to discover that it was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s sense of play that drove the redesign of the East Garden in the 1960’s. Though her time at the White House is severely formed and shaped by President Kennedy’s tragic assassination, still her mother’s heart for her children’s play lent the impish, spirited joviality to the garden’s replanting, created by garden designer Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon:

“A change was overdue. Mellon was willing, but in trying to come up with a design concept to drive the plan, she hit a wall. Then Jacqueline Kennedy mentioned wanting a small croquet lawn for her daughter, Caroline, then aged four, and her toddler John Junior. Mellon’s eureka moment came with the word “croquet.” She took her inner child to work, remembering one of her favorite books, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, in which Alice and the Queen of Hearts play croquet in a rose garden using live flamingoes for mallets. Some weeks before, Mellon had seen some unusual American holly topiaries at Gude Nursery in Rockville, Maryland. “They would make the outline for this new garden, and like Alice in Wonderland, the children could play surrounded by their high presence.”

—Marta McDowell, quoting Bunny Mellon in All the Presidents’ Gardens, page 215

“There is something about a garden that sends us back to childhood,” wrote McDowell. Agreed! One of the best benefits of the multi-faceted hobby—both creating and meandering through gardens—opens the heart to a sense of wonder, as McDowell relates. Hmmm…perhaps there was a reason all along for that first garden in Genesis? The LORD encourages, commands really, the childlike sense of wonder, openness, and unassuming manner; this heart-place void of pretense invites our trust in Him, a trust that willingly welcomes His play.

Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom.
Matthew 18:4 The Message

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children.
Romans 8:15-16 The Message

Catch a glimpse of the oversized, lollypop holly trees in the East Garden still today, and be whimsically beckoned by God’s Spirit and the break-free call to freedom.

Move All the Presidents’ Gardens to the top of the stack in summer reading! Marry your love of gardens to a love of country with this floriferous history book.

Marta McDowell, All the Presidents’ Gardens (Portland, Ore.: Timber Press, 2016)
Link to Author’s Website

Photo Credits:
©2019 Shelley S. Cramm

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