White House conservatory

James Buchanan built a conservatory at the White House during his presidency.

Just as construction of the White House stretched through several presidencies, the landscaping also took time.

Eventually, the 18 acres surrounding the White House became the setting for meals with kings and queens as well as the ceremonial signings of treaties. The grounds have been a retreat for presidents, first ladies and their guests. This is also a yard, albeit a highly visible one, where presidents have planted lawns, built greenhouses and planted roses, orchids and organic vegetables.

Marta McDowell, a landscape historian, knows about all of these projects because she wrote the book on the White House’s gardens.

She shared stories from her book, “All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses, How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America” to a sold-out crowd at LancasterHistory last week. McDowell also has written about Emily Dickinson’s gardens, Beatrix Potter’s gardens and the plants, animals and landscapes of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The audience here was more interested in the gardens of James Buchanan. Did you know that during his presidency, his niece, Harriet Lane, had a new greenhouse built on the roof of the west terrace, Tom Ryan, president and CEO of LancasterHistory, asked the crowd.

McDowell teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where one of her students created a 10-minute presentation on White House gardens. She liked the idea and, after getting permission from the student, pitched it as a book.

In her research, she learned that the presidents and first ladies sometimes were gardening style-setters, sometimes were following trends of the times and sometimes made decisions based on just one person’s needs, such as Dwight Eisenhower’s putting green, which he needed for his golf game.

She shared more about the gardens of these presidents.