The Gardens of the White House Gardeners



You’ve seen them on their trips to the White House – to the garden and even the kitchen – the lucky 5th graders at Bancroft Elementary School in D.C.  The First Lady’s also dropped by the school to catch up with her favorite gardeners, and plant some cucumbers in their raised beds (photo right).  Among their many souvenirs of their gardening fame are special T-shirts and lots of press clippings from all over the world, but they’ll soon be off to middle school and and there’s mystery in the air – will the next 5th grade take their place, or will another school be chosen?

That’s my segue to the question of how these kids were chosen in the first place.  And to find out the answer I recently visited with Bancroft’s long-time volunteer garden coordinator, my old Hort-Club friend Iris Rothman, and she thinks Bancroft was chosen because of the “huge community involvement in the gardens.”  And I saw plenty of evidence of that even on an August morning – the PTA prez was there doing some harvesting with his son (and letting me know Sam Kass is a “great guy!”)  And everywhere there were signs of help from the U.S. Botanic Garden, the city’s Dept. of EnviIMG_6289ronment, neighbors, college volunteers, the staff of Illinois’s Senator Durbin, the generosity of the Japanese Embassy (Iris has no idea why), and more.  It’s also true that 40 different countries are represented in the student body
of 450, almost 80 percent of whom are from low-income families, and that the
school’s bilingual.

Honestly, Bancroft needed help – big-time.  The building looks like a prison and its “landscape” includes chain-link fencing and acres of asphalt, the cause of horrendous erosion down the hill into Rock Creek.

They include a large rain garden, raised vegetable beds, a Three Sisters garden, community garden with 12 plots, an alphabet garden for the youngest students, and this nice pavilion with path and seating, but here’s a complete description of the Bancroft Gardens.


  • Removal of some of the overwhelming expanse of asphalt
  • More stormwater management improvements
  • Planting of 20 new large trees (thanks to Casey Trees)
  • Sending several teachers to Chicago to study at the Botanic Garden’s renowned schools program

You know how there’s sometimes just one or two people who seem to make everything happen?  In this case lots of credit has to go to Iris herself for raising so much money for the gardens and corralling so many volunteers to help (“Anyone can help in the garden.”)  Her first project like this had been making a children’s playhouse happen in Mississippi, where she and her husband spent seven years back in the civil rights era – Iris as a Head Start worker.

Since 2001, Iris has adopted Bancroft School as her prime project and its gardens as her own to improve – she lives a few blocks away.

But just in case I might be crediting her in this article, Iris made me promise to give “huge
praise” to Nancy
k at the 21st Century School Fund!  So kudos to you, too, Nancy!

Addendum: Iris also urged me to add that her latest project is working with Lola Bloom of Cityblossoms to put
together a book of Lola’s vegetable recipes for kids.  Lola used the recipes in a series
of workshops for Bancroft second-graders this summer, and the book will include kids’ drawings and
photos of them enthusiastically eating vegetables grown at Bancroft from White House-supplied starts.  (I’ve mentioned Lola here before – the gardening world in D.C. is a small one.)


  1. Would that we could clone Iris and put one of her in every neighborhood. What she has done represents years of sustained volunteer work, beginning with her success replacing much of the asphalt behind the school with a vast and beautiful rain garden that brought together the brains and resources of the U.S. Botanical Garden and various government agencies. She was there long before Michelle Obama, creating vegetable gardens for the kids, and now is developing a brilliant concept: building a community garden on school grounds. That makes Iris not only a force of nature, but a true visionary. It’s high time her work is recognized. I hope someone thinks to preserve some of Iris’ DNA for future generations.

  2. Iris’ energy and devotion are a blessin — she is always sniffing out free plants and ways to expand the Bancroft garden. I recall donating spring-blooming bulbs and a pile of her name sake iris to the cause. The fact that she has not burnt out yet, as often happens in projects like this when one person shoulders most of the burden, is a testament to her inner-strength and love for gardening.

  3. I really want to try to do something like this at the school my office is in. My IT office is located in Jefferson Middle School in SW, and I am really hoping that I can convince the school administration that this is something worthwhile. It will be complicated since I’m not part of DCPS, but I guess I need to start with the attitude: “Where there is a will, there is a way!”

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