White House Rose Garden. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Carol O'Meara, Colorado State University Extension, Boulder County

Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension, Boulder County

With the change in tenants at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s a groundswell of interest in one thing close to gardener’s hearts. Quiet and not-so-quiet news articles are calling for the tackling of a task that, while not a matter of national security, is something the green-thumb faction is following closely.

Occupants of the White House have free rein to make changes to the grounds, provided it doesn’t alarm the Secret Service. They’re a skittish bunch, for good reason. Though there are guidelines for preserving historic relics, by and large, if the President or First Lady wanted to install a vegetable garden or, say, renovate the Rose Garden, can.

The iconic Rose Garden has undergone numerous permutations through the years, starting with the conversion from stables to vegetable garden after 1833. It was an ideal spot to grow food but couldn’t compete with the need for having a location to entertain emissaries and VIPs. The two uses didn’t mix; if I were its gardener, I’d be chivvying visiting dignitaries away from the cabbages, insisting Heads of State stop stepping on the pumpkin vines, and shrilly demanding that all of the ladies in high heels should go over and aerate the lawn.

Eventually the entertainment area won, though it took a battle-tested General from the civil war, Orville Babcock, to wrest the area from vegetable gardeners. He converted it to narrow flower beds with meandering paths during the Grant administration. Those early ornamental beds went largely neglected until First Lady Edith Roosevelt cleaned out the overgrowth and converted it into an ornamental ‘colonial’ style garden in 1902.

This garden lasted until 1913, when First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson razed it and installed a long-lasting modernist rose garden, complete with strong lines of privet hedges and tall, rigorously pruned shrubs that served as walls. On the west end a lattice was installed to hold paintings during garden parties.

First families took little interest in changing the Rose garden until 1962, after John F. Kennedy was elected. Although the Rose Garden is mostly viewed as First Lady Jacqueline’s rose garden, it was the President himself who longed for and commissioned the work. He wanted a riot of flowers and color, impressive enough to match European gardens and filled with historic plants grown in Thomas Jefferson’s garden.

That Rose Garden became the cherished icon of the White House. Small changes here and there have been tolerated, such as replacing the overly large crabapples with younger ones or swapping in plants that thrive in D.C.’s climate. Gardeners did no more than take notice and wince.

But the more recent, wholesale renovation of the area by First Lady Melania Trump struck gardeners in the heart. Per the concept of the firm hired to handle the renovation in 2020, they wanted to open up the view of the colonnades along the White House, to appreciate the architecture of the building. Intellectually, I know there are people who prefer to look at buildings rather than the beauty of nature. I get it, and even understand that they walk around unsupervised every day.

But the operative word for this area is garden. Eliminating plants doesn’t jibe with that. They installed roses better suited to the environment, but it lacks the inspiration of color in the previous garden. To be fair, we need to wait for spring to see if bulbs were planted.

Gardeners are waiting, not altogether patiently, to see if First Lady Dr. Jill Biden will bring color back to the Rose Garden. And despite our impatience, we need to allow her to settle into her new home and role before we begin a grass-roots call for her to address the issue.

After all, a garden reflects its gardener; it’s as unique to each of us as our fingerprint. She needs time to get to know the area, and if she desires, place her fingers upon it.

By Carol O’Meara. Carol is an Extension Agent – Horticulture Entomology at Colorado State University Extension Boulder County. For more information call 303.678.6377, e-mail [email protected] or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.