Home & Garden

Historian’s got the dirt on what presidents used to grow

A bill of sale for seed and nursery stock reflected the large scale of the White House garden during the 1860s.
A bill of sale for seed and nursery stock reflected the large scale of the White House garden during the 1860s. White House Historical Association

Jonathan Pliska is growing two varieties of cabbage in a corner of his back yard, in neatly framed raised beds. The beds could do with a little more sunlight, but both the Early Jersey and the Flat Dutch are in a healthy late-spring stage, leafy and robust.

“The Flat Dutch was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite,” says Pliska, who points out a nearby bed where a couple of sunchokes are sprouting. “They’re supposed to grow tall and have yellow blooms. They are mentioned by John Quincy Adams.”

Elsewhere he shows me his potted seedlings of Crookneck squash and Crimson Sweet watermelon. “We picked them up at a Lowe’s or Home Depot,” he says, “but they appear to be the same varietals growing during the Lincoln administration.”

For the past two years, Pliska has been gardening in the shadow of the presidents, converting areas around his suburban Baltimore home into growing beds for antique varieties of herbs, vegetables and flowers that would have been familiar to the nation’s cultivators-in-chief, particularly during the agrarian 19th century.

As rewarding as his presidential gardening has become, it is more than just for his amusement.

Pliska, a landscape historian, is the author of “A Garden for the President,” published two years ago by the White House Historical Association as the first comprehensive account of the use and evolution of the White House gardens and grounds from the arrival of the executive mansion’s first occupants, John and Abigail Adams, to the Obama administration.

In 1800, the Adamses moved into the middle of a construction site that included huts, brick kilns and holes dug for clay bricks. Pliska writes that Abigail Adams observed that the most important residence in the new federal city “lacked ‘the least fence, yard or other convenience.’ 

The Obamas found a more finished place where Michelle Obama rekindled its 19th-century grow-your-own ethos with the White House Kitchen Garden, adding another layer of history to a site Pliska spent years studying.

“I think it was a wonderful idea, and I think it’s wonderful that the current first lady is continuing it,” he says. “It brings back a productive garden to the White House we haven’t seen since the 1870s.”

Pliska, 37, said his challenge was in unearthing material from the early decades of the White House. It was a time when the landscape was something to be used rather than preserved, its function as a public park discouraged the first families from using it, and record-keeping was poor. Another obstacle for the modern researcher was that gardeners 200 years ago relied less on nurseries and more on sharing plants or saving seeds, leaving fewer records of what they planted.

“I wouldn’t say Lincoln had a particular interest in gardening compared to other presidents,” Pliska says, “but it’s hard to overstate his importance. His administration has the most complete seed purchasing list of any president.”

He unearthed a map showing an extensive Civil War-era, 2-acre garden on the west side of the mansion. Its days were numbered when a road was built right through it – West Executive Avenue – now an internal drive running between the White House and the Old Executive Office Building.

Afterward, and in the same general area, an impressive range of greenhouses and an orchid-rich conservatory offered verdant retreats until 1902, when the site was cleared for the West Wing.

Two figures stand out to Pliska. The first was John Quincy Adams, who was just as much a gardener as Thomas Jefferson but had something Jefferson (John Adams’ successor) did not at the White House: A finished site from which to garden. Adams kept an extensive garden diary.

The second key figure was the landscape architect and city planner Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (not to be confused with his father), who brought aesthetic coherence and design principles to the White House grounds. This has guided the unobtrusive placement of such features as Gerald Ford’s swimming pool, George H.W. Bush’s horseshoe pitch and even the Kitchen Garden and its apiary, tucked in the southwest corner of the grounds.

“All these things, in my opinion, add to the grounds rather than subtract from them,” he says. He is sitting in the parlor of the 1928 Craftsman cottage he shares with his wife, Ellen, and four cats in Catonsville, Maryland.

Since the book was published, Pliska has immersed himself in gardening with the varieties that his subjects would have known. The oaken table in his parlor is piled high with seed catalogues, and he produces a wad of seed packets stored in his freezer. “I’ve got enough purple top turnip seed to last a lifetime,” he says.

Outside, the humble cabbages and seedlings are anything but modest; they bring tangible life to the experiences of his subjects.

The object, Pliska said, isn’t to produce cartloads of fresh vegetables, but to demonstrate to himself that these antique varieties can still be grown. “If we can get one little carrot, that’s a win because it proves it can be done,” he says. He is also reassured by the fact that some presidents were outwitted by rapacious rabbits.

“If everything I’m doing isn’t successful,” he says, “it makes me feel a little better because not everything the presidents did was successful, either.”

Tip of the week

Early blight is a common fungal disease that afflicts tomato plants, turning the leaves yellow and black. You can keep it at bay by giving tomato beds a generous mulch of straw and removing lower leaves as symptoms appear.