“The love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies … ,” Gertrude Jekyll once wrote. And it seems to be true.
With President’s Day coming up Monday, this is a good time to look back in history at some of our presidents who were serious gardeners. Gardens and gardening have been part of America’s presidential history since George Washington.
Probably the most famous gardener/president was Thomas Jefferson, who designed plans for the White House gardens. He once wrote, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”
So if you are a gardener and history buff and have never visited Washington’s Mount Vernon or Jefferson’s Monticello, consider adding them on your “bucket list.”
This column got a jump-start when Arkansas Master Gardener Conference participants received a copy of “The White House Garden,” published by the White House Historical Association.
It is filled with interesting facts on gardening at the White House, including:
• Nearly every tree represents a president, including a magnolia planted by Andrew Jackson in 1829 in memory of his wife Rachael. Jackson brought the sprout from the Hermitage, his home in Nashville. Oaks were brought in by Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
• John Quincy Adams would work the soil alongside the White House gardener after his swim in the Potomac. He was also the first president to plant flower gardens, using Jefferson’s landscape plan.
• Today’s awesome display of bulbs each spring had their ancestry in Andrew Jackson’s garden.
• Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, replaced a colonial garden with the first rose garden, which was later redesigned by John F. Kennedy and continues to be used for outdoor ceremonies today.
First ladies also made a huge impact. Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama all had versions of vegetable gardens. Mrs. Roosevelt planted the White House victory garden during World War II to promote the use of victory gardens by Americans because of food shortages. Hillary Clinton‘s vegetable garden was built on the roof of the White House. And Michelle Obama initiated the largest, most expanded vegetable garden to date to promote healthy eating.
Mention of vegetable gardens led to questions about favorite presidential foods. We all know that President George H.W. Bush hated broccoli, President Barack Obama disliked beets and President Bill Clinton’s take on carrots was carrot cake. But what foods did the leaders of the free world enjoy?
This sounds like many hours of research. However, thanks to a google search it had already been done by hipveggies.com. And the results are interesting:
• Although cherries are always associated with Washington (and he did like them), his passion was hazelnuts, which he purchased by the barrel.
• It’s no surprise that Jefferson was the leading presidential foodie. He loved gourmet food, gardening and farming and kept a notebook in which he noted when fruits and vegetables were in season and could be found in local markets. He preferred produce to meat and was especially fond of peas — growing more than 30 different varieties in his garden at Monticello.
• Hickory nut soup was part of the White House cuisine of Andrew Jackson (true to his nickname “Old Hickory”).
• Zachary Taylor, who lived in Fort Smith on what are now the grounds of Immaculate Conception Church, was partial to hominy.
Andrew Johnson’s favorite was popcorn. In fact, he was known for hosting “popcorn parties” at the White House.
• Like Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt appreciated food. Much of the food served at the White House dinner table was grown on his home estate, including asparagus. Roosevelt was also a bit of a food adventurer/forager who liked wild greens, especially fiddleheads and dandelions.
This is probably more information that you want to know. If not, there is much more about each first family’s likes and dislikes, plus recipes, on The Food Timeline, thanks to research by editor Lynne Olver (hipveggies.com).
On a local note, although Zachary Taylor was the only president to reside in Fort Smith, several others visited here — though some were merely passing through. William Clinton was a frequent visitor; John Kennedy visited here long enough to accept the deed to land for the Fort Smith National Historic Site on his way to Big Cedar, Okla.; Richard Nixon flew into Fort Smith on his way to an Arkansas-Texas football game at Fayetteville; Gerald Ford was the keynote speaker at Mercy Medical Center’s dedication, and George W. Bush spoke at Van Buren’s Butterfield School.
Harry Truman, after his presidency, stayed overnight at the old Goldman Hotel and took his famous morning walk on Garrison Avenue.
And, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was here for a Sparks Hospital women’s function. Years later, Lady Bird Johnson participated in the dedication of the Fort Smith Historic Site.
Look around your own garden and you may find some of the plants that were grown by President Jefferson, including flowering quince, flowering almond, bridal wreath and forsythia, that have already begun their early spring debut.
While watching a P. Allen Smith TV show about Monticello, I saw sesame plants growing in Jefferson’s gardens. Then, during the same show, Allen prepared a spinach dish and sprinkled sesame seeds on top. This brought back memories of that Big Mac commercial: "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, etc., — on a sesame seed bun."
Although sesame was introduced into the U.S. in the 1930s, documents show Jefferson grew sesame seed more than 200 years ago. He referred to it as beni or benne, the name used in Africa
As a gardener, it was natural to wonder if sesame can grow in Arkansas and the Fort Smith region. It will grow in Zones 7-10, so the answer is yes. In 2013, farmers in northeast Arkansas began dedicating hundreds of acres to this plant, which needs little water or fertilizer, has no natural pests in Arkansas, and thrives in marginal soil. It also has a long planting season, from early May to mid-July.
A member of the pedalium family, sesame plants range from 1-5 feet tall, depending on the variety. Gray fuzz covers the deep green leaves. Bell-shaped flowers in white, pink or mauve resemble those of foxgloves and are eagerly sought by bees. Bloom time is from July through September. The pods split once the seeds are ripe.
The Learning Fields — a Master Gardener project — has ordered seeds and will have sesame plants later this spring. Master Gardener Susan Randolph shared the following information from Bakers Creek, where she ordered the seeds:
“Plants (Sesamum indicum) grow to 5 feet in height. They make an excellent cover crop or wildlife forage. Light-colored seeds are tasty and suitable for use in the kitchen. They control harmful nematodes in some situations.”
Another memento from Monticello are black hollyhocks. Susan bought seeds from Jefferson’s plants when she visited Monticello. “They are great plants — even people who don’t notice plants notice black hollyhocks.”
She also is planting black hollyhock seeds in the greenhouse for use in the demonstration gardens and for the plant sale.
Reminiscent of Grandmother’s gardens and a dominant flower in garden illustrations at the beginning of the 20th century, hollyhocks were among Jefferson’s many flowers. Although classed as a biennial, they often live for several years. Flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. The black hollyhock (Alcea rosea nigra) is described as producing some of the most truly black flowers in the plant world. Incidentally, according to Botanical Interests, black plants aren’t really black — the dark color comes from a high amount of red and purple flavonoids in the plants.
Next week, the topic will be America’s favorite vegetable — the potato.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.