Garden tours of the White House are back on your bucket list

By Ellen Knickmeyer | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — There were the young women in fresh fall coats, a guy in a suit, parents with kids in hoodies, all maneuvering the South Front of the White House for selfies. Plant buffs and history buffs alike leaned forward to admire the perennials and centuries-old trees on the lawns where Commander the dog lolls and Marine One the helicopter lands.

Time and time again, Secret Service agents rose to the challenge of the White House fall garden tour over the weekend, all with a free ticket: “Get off the grass!” shouted an agent in a black uniform, straightening his shoulders, not for the first time, not for the last time. A lost visitor hopped back onto the path.

An estimated 30,000 people strolled through the black metal gates of the White House on Saturday and Sunday as the red-uniformed Marine Band played through everyone overlooking the South Lawn.

With some of the most massive temporary security fences in place and the easing of pandemic restrictions, the tours over a non-rainy weekend were a throwback to the White House’s early days, when there were fewer restrictions on access to the People’s House. For a weekend, the tour sheared some of the distance between the nation’s government and a curious, divided audience.

The annual fall and spring tours open the gates to gardens that are over 200 years old — the oldest continuously maintained landscape in the United States, says the National Park Service He and his wife Lindsey Harrison, 30, got out of their home hours early in Washington to stand in line at 7:07 a.m. on Saturday. They wanted to see the rose garden and maybe more.

“There’s a chance the president will go out and say hello,” she said.

President Joe Biden was actually at his home in Delaware.

Hospitality had its limits: ground crew unrolled evergreens in containers to block the path to a back garden, where grandchildren’s handprints and pet pawprints provide a glimpse into the lives of White House residents.

The human residents weren’t on site, but it was the bees in the hives, scouting man-tall orange marigolds in the blooming, flowering bed that houses the kitchen vegetable garden created by Michelle Obama and the cut flower garden created by Jill Biden.

John Adams is credited with preparing the ground for the White House’s first kitchen garden, though a loss in re-election meant he left before the spring planting season of 1801, historians say. During his time as president, he hired white and black laborers, although the White House Historical Association notes that other presidents brought blacks they held in slavery to work as gardeners.

The current chief groundsman is Dale Haney, who was honored by the Bidens last week for 50 years of service in the White House. In the minutes that the tour areas were open to journalists but not yet to the general public over the weekend, a gardener towed a final cart loaded with branches and leaves. Another cleaned up with what appeared to be a battery-powered leaf blower (an aha moment for gardeners in these days of the gas-powered controversy).

Public access to the White House grounds may have peaked in 1837, when Andrew Jackson celebrated George Washington’s birthday by opening the White House doors to anyone — men and boys in frock coats and straw hats, women and girls in toques — who wanted a share of a donated 635-kilogram cheese.

“For hours a crowd of men, women and boys chopped at the cheese, many taking large chunks of it,” wrote one journalist at the time. “That day in Washington nothing else was talked about.”

World War II, 9/11 and other security concerns have steadily impacted access for ordinary Americans.

When First Lady Pat Nixon began spring and fall garden tours in 1973, the White House itself was still open to visitors who queued for tours.

Today, the public is generally asked to go through the Congressional Bureaux to obtain seats on White House tours. Families enter a lottery for a spot in the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.

On Garden Tour weekends, the line goes around the metal gates that surround approximately 7 acres.

A VIP group, who walked in at the top of Saturday’s garden tour, were allowed to peek in the windows close enough, get behind photos of people in a tranquil rose garden lit by yellow flowers, and raise questions about who gnawed first on the big cheese.

Rashida Holman-Jones, a Washington-area SEED School administrator, came through the gates with her 7-year-old twin girls, a 17-year-old student, Simona Weimer, and others.

Weimer has been great with the compost and use in the school garden, Holman-Jones said. Holman-Jones became involved in school gardening as a direct result of Michelle Obama’s gardener-friendly quest for better nutrition for children.

“I wasn’t interested in gardening at the time,” she said. “But I was really, really into Michelle Obama.”

In the White House gardens last weekend, well-pruned boxwood-like plantings kept all the red, green, yellow, purple and orange pollinator-friendly autumn blooms in a row.

Topiary was great. Photos and plaques mark trees planted by past Presidents, with Queen Elizabeth II, Hillary Clinton and others also being part of the family trees planted. The oldest trees are identified as two southern magnolias planted by Jackson.

A man in a suit approached the outside of the White House on Saturday. A Secret Service agent, who appeared next to waist-high bushes, told him to go back.

Holman-Jones, a friend, and her beaming little girls crowded for her photo. Weimer from Ethiopia got a photo for people at home capturing their moment at the White House. Garden tours of the White House are back on your bucket list

Grace Reader

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