Celebrating Presidents Day with gardens

I often write in this column the importance of keeping a garden journal to record what goes on from season to season.

Keeping track of what is planted, how well it grows and the final result at the end of the season helps us make decisions about what and where to plant things the following year.

Garden journaling isn’t new. In fact, in observance of Presidents Day, it is interesting to learn that Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, was not only an avid gardener, but was an avid garden journal keeper as well.

The author of the Declaration of Independence grew more than 300 varieties of vegetables on his plantation at Monticello in Virginia. He also grew fruit trees, flowers and ornamental shrubs. Many of the plants he grew were experimental and he kept careful documentation of everything that included the distance between planting rows to the height of the plants. Not everything grew well and the failures also were documented in his journal.

Some historians say Jefferson’s garden at Monticello revolutionized the backyard vegetable garden. Jefferson’s garden journal is still in existence and can be purchased from the gift shop at Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson was not the only U.S. president who took to gardening. George Washington planted more than 500 acres of his 8,000 acre estate at Mount Vernon. Entries in his diaries and notations in many of his letters indicate he grew not only flower gardens, but also a kitchen vegetable garden and formal, ornamental gardens. Even before Jefferson’s experimental gardens, Washington tested plant varieties on his plantation.

While he was president, George Washington began planning the gardens at the White House, although he never lived there. The second president, John Adams, was the first to reside at the house and, according to the Smithsonian Institute, it was Adams who ordered the first planting of a garden on the property.

Each president who followed contributed to the plantings at the White House. By the time Theodore Roosevelt lived in the house in the early 1900s, first lady Edith Roosevelt, with the help of gardener Henry Pfister, designed the first colonial garden on the site of what is now the Rose Garden. In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt called on landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to redesign the rose garden and, in spite of changes over the years, Olmstead’s plan is still the basis for the garden’s design.

If Olmstead’s name is familiar, it is because even prior to the redesign of the White House rose garden, upon graduating from Harvard University in 1894, Olmstead spent more than a year working on a design for a 10,000 acre estate in Asheville, N.C. Named for its owner, George Vanderbilt, Biltmore has been a popular tourist museum and is often referred to as America’s castle. Still privately owned by the Biltmore family, George’s descendants agreed to open the house and its gardens to the public to help increase tourism in the Blue Ridge mountain town. It worked and each year millions of people visit Asheville to tour the 250-room estate and its gardens. I’ve been there three times.

When President Kennedy was in office, changes were made to the rose garden at the White House to accommodate celebrations and ceremonies there. The rose garden is part of what is called the West Garden at the White House, but the East Garden also was redesigned during the Kennedy years. After Kennedy’s assassination, first lady Lady Bird Johnson dedicated the East Garden to Jacqueline Kennedy.

President Richard M. Nixon’s daughter, Tricia was married in the White House rose garden in 1971. The rose garden also is the site of the annual turkey pardoning at Thanksgiving.

In 2009, Michelle Obama organized the planting of an organic kitchen garden. The garden is more than 1,000 square feet and grows more than 50 varieties of vegetables. The garden was part of Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity and healthy eating. Local schoolchildren are invited to visit the garden two days a week.