Tour of the White House Grounds

In a Capital Garden – Cape Cod arborist explores the White House grounds (published in the Cape Cod Times, Sunday, March 15, 1992)

As an arborist, I got very excited when George Bush was elected, because he was the first president in the history of the United States with a horticultural name.

I wrote him a letter pointing out that fact, and I asked if it was possible to see the White House grounds.  I received a nice reply from the director of the White House Visitors Office.

It turns out the White House gardens are opened for tours twice a year, and I was fortunate enough to be part of the fall tour last October.  It was extremely interesting and enjoyable to actually see and walk around the areas I’ve seen so often on the news and to feel the sense of history that the White House landscape seems steeped in.

We entered the grounds via the East Gate and gathered near the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.  The tour route loops around the expansive South Lawn.  We passed the White House tennis courts and went through the Children’s Garden, the famous Rose Garden, and into the State level of the White House.

The interior of the White House seemed very formal and museum-like.  And the Rose Garden itself was also formal—everything was just right, just so.  In October, it was more of a mum garden than a rose garden.  It was abundantly filled with chrysanthemums.  It’s hard to tell from television shots, but the Oval Office is at ground level on the western side of the Rose Garden.

The landscaping around the White House is elegant, yet simple.  The gardens combine natural and formal landscaping.  There are expansive, sweeping lawns that are gently mounded on the sides for reasons of aesthetics and privacy.  Also for privacy, the perimeter of the South Lawn is densely planted with trees and understory shrubs that screen the lawn from the surrounding city.

There are also many stately, elegant trees – both rare and common varieties – on the sides of the lawn.  According to our guide, many of them were planted in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt commissioned the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of modern landscape architecture, to re-landscape the South Lawn.  From the lawn, there are expansive views of the Washington Monument.  The trees are well-cared for; there is no deadwood, they are cabled where necessary, and the really huge ones have lightning protection systems.

Traditionally, presidents and their wives plant trees.  I suspect the president does not select the species and planting site, though.  All the plantings seem to fit into a master plan.

A few of the plantings are now national treasures.  Huge, lush magnolias planted by Andrew Jackson flank the south entrance.  A saucer magnolia, added by John F. Kennedy, blends nicely with them.  There is also a beautiful, perfectly shaped 60-foot red oak that was planted by Dwight Eisenhower.  A child’s swing hangs from a branch.

There is also a beautiful cedar of Lebanon that seems too big to have been planted by Jimmy Carter.  Nearby is a large atlas cedar in which, a guard told me, Amy Carter had a tree house.  The tree house was built without nails, so it wouldn’t harm the tree.

A lovely willow oak planted by Lyndon Johnson is healthy and surprisingly large.  Among other beautiful trees that impressed me were a huge Japanese maple planted by Grover Cleveland, a white oak planted by Herbert Hoover, and a scarlet oak planted by Benjamin Harrison.  George and Barbara Bush have planted a redbud, a purple beech, and a linden.  The grounds are really a historical arboretum.

Presidents come and go – trees do too – but trees last longer than presidents.

There were about 30 photographs displayed around the grounds.  They included tree-planting ceremonies, President Kennedy’s children at play, and the Wright Brothers flying machine skimming over the South Lawn.  Recreational areas are tastefully sited among the plantings.  The White House tennis courts are screened by hollies.  President Bush has placed a small putting green on the South Lawn and a basketball hoop behind the Children’s Garden.

There is an outdoor swimming pool among the oaks in a secluded area of the South Lawn, where, I was told, Barbara Bush swims every day.  I noticed a fine netting draped over one side of the nearest oak to keep the leaves out of the pool.

The tour of the White House grounds made history as well as current events seem more real, more alive for me.

The White House garden tours are open to the public twice a year on a Saturday and Sunday.  The spring tour takes place in mid-April, and the fall tour in mid-October.

Information about the tours is available from the white House visitors Office at (202) 456-2200 or (202) 456-2322.