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Plants, not politics: The stories behind the White House gardens

For the past 200 years, they've witnessed the nation's most significant speeches, groundbreaking peace negotiations and joyous celebrations. A closer look at the role and evolution of the White House gardens.

WASHINGTON — In the height of a contentious election season, author Marta McDowell is putting partisan politics on pause and focusing, instead, on plants. More specifically, the White House gardens.

In her new book, “All The Presidents’ Gardens,” McDowell takes a close look at the evolution of the White House’s 18 acres over the past 200 years, and their role in history — from the initiation of peace talks, to the signing of treaties and even the exchange of vows.

“I call them the Forrest Gump of gardens. If you remember Forrest Gump, he was kind of always in the background of these really key events, and that’s been true of the White House grounds as well,” McDowell said.

“If there are protests out front, the gardens are right in the background, diplomacy goes on out in the gardens. … We have history going on, right in this garden space.”

McDowell introduces one of the White House’s first garden enthusiasts, John Quincy Adams — who used to garden in the early hours of the morning before tackling his presidential duties — and chronicles the changing landscape of the grounds through the subsequent administrations.

For years, large greenhouses were attached to the White House, until President Theodore Roosevelt tore them down and built a colonial-style garden.

“That goes out, and Mrs. Wilson designs an Italian-age garden,” McDowell said. “You have different fashion styles going on in gardening.”

In 1971, the Rose Garden was transformed into a wedding venue where President Richard Nixon gave away his daughter, Patricia, in marriage. Later in the decade, President Jimmy Carter built his daughter, Amy, a tree house nestled in the branches of the blue atlas cedar on the White House’s South Lawn.

When Hillary Clinton was first lady, she filled the White House’s gardens with contemporary sculpture exhibitions. Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden gave her fodder in her fight against childhood obesity.

“They have sort of this mirror effect [for what’s going on in history],” McDowell said.

Come January, the gardens could get a whole new look — or return to a more familiar one.

“Whatever Trump would do [to the gardens], I am sure it would be over the top,” McDowell said.

If Hillary moves into the White House for a second time, she anticipates art will once again populate the political oasis.  

“And the first gentleman would have some latitude on what went down in the garden as well,” she said.

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