The White House Gardens
The White House Gardens are the oldest continually maintained landscape in the U.S. One weekend during the spring and fall the South Grounds are open to the public, including the Rose Garden, Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, Kitchen Garden, and the ornamental trees planted by former presidents. (Tickets are free but limited/timed entry on first-come basis)
Address: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500
Tickets are free for timed entry. Tour dates will be announced a few weeks in advance of the event on the website.
- The White House Gardens website
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- The White House Gardens – Google
Getting a ticket for the super-secretive White House Garden Tour involves getting up extra early and waiting in crazy lines all around the Ellipse, but it is free and completely worth the hassle. Living in the city and driving past quite often, I thought I was immune to the awe of this symbolic seat of power, but I found myself holding back tears as I rounded the driveway up to the South Portico. Pristine lawns, rolling hills, simple gardens, and stately old trees elevate the property beyond any parties or politics to a lovingly cared for piece of land rich with history. I was humbled by this rare experience to go behind the barricades and experience this space that was first set aside by George Washington and has since been expanded upon by so many other Presidents into this gorgeous, functional landscape.
While most of the property surrounding the White House is made up of sprawling stretches of lawn, there are three main gardens that each have their own style and symbolic importance. On the east side of the main entrance lies the Jaqueline Kennedy Garden with its distinctive topiary holly trees in alternating shapes. The hollies are fenced in by orderly boxwood hedges, along which a brick pathway leads to the shade of the freestanding white, wooden pergola designed by I. M. Pei with ornate benches and hanging flower pots. Apparently many of the gardens were redesigned during the Kennedy era after years of neglect, and this garden was dedicated to the famous First Lady for her efforts.
Perhaps most iconic of all, the Rose Garden is a lush grassy lawn off the Oval Office surrounded by low hedges and crabapple trees. The signature rose bushes, not yet in bloom, were surrounded by a sea of tulips in every color. It is impressive that this simple, symbolic garden has served as a backdrop for countless speeches and ceremonies that have been broadcast around the country and world. Across the South Lawn from the Rose Garden is Michelle Obama’s recent addition, the White House Kitchen Garden, a fully-functioning vegetable garden complete with a beehive. In fact, the function of each of the gardens clearly dictated their simple yet elegant design.
The various gardens and fountains around the property are filled with colorful flowers such as tulips and pansies, but the real stars of the White House gardens are the 400+ trees. 32 of these were planted by presidents or first ladies over the years, and seeing these living markers of time in various stages of growth added to the sense of the history of the place. There was a grove of flowering dogwood trees along the driveway next to which was displayed a picture of a young Hillary Clinton putting a shovel to the ground (several photos were displayed throughout the grounds for the purpose of the garden tour). One of the two magnolia trees flanking the South Portico was planted by Andrew Jackson in memory of his wife from a seedling brought from his home in Tennessee. All of the impressive trees across the property are tagged with labels specifying the type of tree and who might have planted it—a practice instituted by Jimmy Carter and possibly, we were told, inspired by his daughter’s school project.
Final Rating: The fact that the White House gardens are only open to the public twice a year makes the experience of gaining access into this fenced-in paradise in the center of the city that much more special. Political allegiances were left behind with all of the other prohibited items and everyone came together to share in the appreciation of this spectacular horticultural achievement. The grounds of this famous residence have evolved over time as certain presidents and first ladies took a special interest in the beautification of their surroundings with new additions, plantings, and redesigns, yet it has remained a powerful symbol of respect for nature and the natural spaces we inhabit. I would encourage anyone to make the effort to get a ticket to this exclusive biannual event (more info below). FIVE BLOOM RATING