Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Welcome to the White House

Librarians rule. Period. I had time to kill last Tuesday afternoon between appointments and went into the MLK Library near Gallery Place to catch up on some reading. On my way out, a display of Inauguration-related books caught my eye and right up front was "White House Landscapes" by Barbara McEwan. How have we missed this resource in all our White House lawn and edible garden discussions? It is copyrighted 1992, but is still fresh and very relevant. She goes right up through the first Bush's administration and her research is spot on.

I grabbed it, checked it out, and perused it that night. Turns out Ms. McEwan lives in Virginia and thanks to some google-sleuthing by fellow garden writer, C.L. Fornari, I spoke to Barbara briefly by phone. She is 82 now and retired from garden writing and speaking. Which is too bad, as I'd have loved to tap her for some local talks. She was not aware of the movement to get the White House lawn to be organic and to add a real edible garden to the estate. "Oh, how intriguing," was her comment. She is online and I hope will respond to this post with her 2 cents on current White House landscape plans.

Some juicy bits from her book that may interest our new President as he decides what to do with the vast amount of White House lawn:

"Before he and Abigail moved to the yet unfinished White House in the new capital city of Washington, Adams demanded only one thing be accomplished by the time they arrived in the fall of 1800: He must have a vegetable garden to supply food for the coming winter. Landscaping was left to his friend and successor, Thomas Jefferson."

"...during Polk's and Taylor's tenures the President's Park was still under the experienced and capable hands of John Ousley and Jemmy Maher. (William Whalen was no longer working as a kitchen gardener by the time Polk arrived.) The two men continued the landscaping plans set forth under Andrew Jackson. Maher, the more enterprising, has his own nursery business to supplement his government income. This relegated Ousley to the role of secondary player in maintaining the grounds. Even had either been inclined to do more, a tight budget provided by Congress would have prevented any new major project. Ousley in effect was a general maintenance man, taking care of his flowers, vegetables, orangery, and lawn, providing the residents of the great house with food and visual enjoyment when it was wanted. The extent of his additional enterprise during this period was confined to selling lawn grass to a livery stable owner, whose employees cut it for hay. A farmer was then allowed to graze his sheep, again for a fee. With the money he received, Ousley bought gardening tools and supplies.
The overall design Maher had labored to produce was now evident. Shrubs were grouped, which made them easier to water and to fence against wandering sheep and horses. Trees, still on the small side and not too many, nonetheless helped provide the proper setting for the kind of small focal points of beauty Jefferson had so much appreciated. Flowers, particularly roses, played their part but never in competition with the house itself or the expanses of lawn."

"Mrs. Mellon [commissioned by the Kennedys for a garden outside the oval office] found herself confronted with much White House history in the process of the garden's construction. Surprises occurred when the old soil was replaced with new. As the area was dig to a depth of four inches, many relics of bygone years, such as pieces of pots from the old greenhouses and Civil War horseshoes, were recovered. The biggest surprise of all was a cable of undetermined significance in one corner of the plot. It was cut -- and the diggers were immediately surrounded by security guards. Unbeknownst to the crew or Mrs. Mellon, this cable was par of the hotline that set off the nation's military alert. (In the haste of installing it during World War II its location had not been accurately recorded.)"

1 comment:

jessica said...

Wow....nice blog
Thanks for sharing the informative with us..

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