Even Garden Writers who Hate Trump are Defending the Rose Garden Upgrade

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The announcement from the office of Melania Trump that the Rose Garden is getting an upgrade next month came at the worst possible time. It also came from one of the worst possible sources – a First Lady whose design tastes, whether it’s gilded apartments or Handmaid’s Tale-style Christmas trees – have come in for widespread abuse. (And then there’s who she’s married to, but no need to cover that topic here.)

So what does she have in store for the hallowed ground that is the White House Rose Garden?

Relax. It’s not HER design! It’s a much-needed upgrade planned by two very prominent landscape architects and their firms, along with the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and the keepers of the 18-acre property – the National Park Service.

The local landscape architecture firm hired for the job is none other than Oehme van Sweden, arguably the best known firm in this area, if not the whole country. I’ve fan-blogged them several times myself – here, here, here, here and here. Nuf said.

The other designer I’d never heard of but want to know more about. According to Washingtonian Magazine, “Trump tapped a New Yorker, a landscape architect from the Hamptons named Perry Guillot. Guillot is ‘a favorite of Hamptonites like Aerin Lauder, Tina Brown, and Tory Burch,’ according to Vanity Fair, is ‘somewhat of an authority on privacy-affording shrubbery,’ according to The Architect’s Newspaper, and even penned a coffee-table book about the privet, that ‘privacy-affording’ shrub ubiquitous around Southhampton.”

(Living among historic privet hedges myself, I’m curious to read his take on them.)

But if you just skim the 241-page Rose Garden Landscape Report that was attached to the announcement, as I did, you’ll see that it’s been in the works for quite a while. You might even notice that the groups consulted for the project include some of the most respected people in the DC area. (For example.)

What Other Garden Writers are Saying

While the Twittersphere was going nuts over the announcement, and by nuts I mean full of references to Marie Antoinette, I was happy to see that Adrian Higgins’s take in the Washington Post was quite sensible. (In order words, we agree.)

 …the lavish redo of the Rose Garden has generated Marie Antoinette comparisons. In reality, the renovation is long overdue.

Among the problems to be addressed: a poorly drained lawn that had to be replaced annually, constant disturbance of roots of trees and shrubs by the seasonal planting of annuals, the die-off of rose bushes to the point where only a dozen or so remained, and the susceptibility of the defining boxwood parterres to a new, devastating disease named boxwood blight.

One valid criticism that gardeners are raising is the timing of the work, including the planting of lots of new plants – in August. Higgins writes:

The rapid installation of the design is in contrast to the time spent developing it; we are told that construction projects at the White House are typically done in high summer when the first family is vacationing. But as any gardener in Washington knows, this is one of the most challenging periods of the year to plant living things, including turf grass.

Still seems crazy but if that’s what the gardening team there has to contend with, more power to them! I imagine landscapers everywhere can identify with clients making their job much harder than necessary.

Moving on, Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener Magazine, wrote in an email to me:

I actually don’t have an issue with it – looking at the plans it is really a tweak and partial restoration plus installing new underground irrigation and drainage pipes that are failing on the site.

Of course, certain media outlets are hyping it to make it political and about her, but I think this is actually staff-driven (national park service) and long overdue.

Gotta agree with Kathy. Though surely the announcement could have been handled differently – maybe had it come from a National Park Service bureaucrat instead of Melania herself? Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.

Or maybe the announcement could have been worded differently. Saying that the renovation should be viewed as an “act of expressing hope and optimism for the future”? Don’t know that that resonates with anyone. Or this: “Our country has seen difficult times before, but the White House and the Rose Garden have always stood as a symbol of our strength, resilience and continuity.” Which brings us back to timing. Really unfortunate timing.

By the way, there were similar reactions to Melania Trump’s announcement in March (yes, of this year!) that a Classically styled tennis pavilion was being installed on the White House grounds. As one does to cope with life-threatening national crises.

For nonpolitical reactions I turned to a prominent architecture blog and found a few mentions of the architecture itself – that it’s just fine – but lots more mentions of Marie Antoinette. It’s just that kind of year.

Photo credit:  Trump apartment.

28 COMMENTS

    • Beautifully written? Did I read the wrong article? Did Michelle’s vegan garden grow pot or not? A rose has thorns like Kudzu and the Zoo has a baby Panda too!

  1. Though I question the word ‘hate’ in the headline (though I am on the same page), I appreciate your review of the Rose Garden upgrade. It offered more information than I got in the NY Times.
    I am never disappointed (or rarely) with any ‘Rant’.

    Thank you

  2. Good work, Susan. Nice to read about this with some rationality. I posted about this garden update by linking to the original 7/27 NYTimes article on my Facebook timeline because it is a noteworthy garden in my region. There were 55 comments, many showing they hadn’t read the article and instead were responding to the articles’ headline–“Melania Trump to Announce Plan to Revamp White House Rose Garden.” If you want to see how polarization has crept into the garden community, read the comments here: https://bit.ly/30f6H7Q.

  3. Why must you make this article snidely political? It may surprise you to know that there are many of us from the elites between the coasts (yes, we exist) who were educated at the best schools, and are both intelligent and sophisticated. We read omnivorously; we travel widely. We are not racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, or Islamophobic. And we voted for Donald Trump, because of our belief in free-market capitalism and our opposition to big government. It is fine that you disagree with the gentleman’s policies. To make a wholly superfluous swipe at him – let alone Melania Trump – simply makes you look petty and small.

    • Well stated. I enjoy this blog normally but I see gardening as an escape and a refuge where politics can be put aside and forgotten for a while and they seem to be unable to do so.

    • Sheesh, calm down, it’s an article on revamping the White House grounds, with a few cheeky political comments.

    • I do not agree. At all.
      I have planted PLENTY of trees and annuals and perennials. Number one, annuals are not planted deep enough to bother tree roots. And number two, the Kennedys [planted those trees, so they weren’t just trees. (not that ANY tree is just a tree)

      No trump believes that the WH is his-in fact that the whole country is his-to do with what he wants. History is important when maintaining national treasures like the WH. Concrete? Really? However did the rose garden survive all of these years without it? Dead roses? Plant MORE ROSES. It’s the ROSE garden. Melania may not have designed it, but I am betting she had to authorize every step.

      Why do you think no other (faker) POTUSs felt the need to change it this drastically? I call BS.

      And OF COURSE it is political! it is OUR White House! Hasn’t he desecrated enough?

    • Aren’t you special? Did you get into “the best schools” cheating on your SATs, like the man all your “education” tells you to vote for?

    • to Kimberley: The oxymorons in your statement are over-whelming…”from the elites between the coasts (yes, we exist) who were educated at the best schools, and are both intelligent and sophisticated. We read omnivorously; we travel widely. We are not racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, or Islamophobic. And we voted for Donald Trump, because of our belief in free-market capitalism and our opposition to big government.”….intelligent and sophisticated, well-travelled…AND voted for Donald Trump???…..you have deceived yourselves. And so you want a Dictatorship rather than Big Government?……you got it.

  4. Does anyone really understand what this is about? It has nothing to do with gardens, it has everything to do with indications to Trump supporters that the Trumps will be continuing to occupy the Whitehouse.Ha, not happening.

  5. Thank you. This is a great article. It’s taken me a long time to finish reading it because it led me on tour of gardeners and gardens that I knew nothing about. It’s been fascinating and educational.

  6. All things are connected, gardens, politics, our loves, our hates..and trying to isolate them is pointless. When you feel something strongly, if you are not harming others, you should express it. Mabel tov!

  7. Sorry – we have millions of people out of work, and as of Friday, out of unemployment compensation. They’re about to lose the roof over their heads. Sorry to be political, but the GOP claims that we don’t have the money to continue helping people through this crisis – but we have the money for this? The makeover may very well be overdue, but to do it now reeks of tone-deafness.

  8. All those beautiful flowers and those Crabapple trees PLANTED BY JACKIE KENNEDY…GUTTED for WHAT? Sterile, boring, absolutely banal NOTHINGNESS! IT”S HORRIBLE!

  9. I couldn’t disagree with you more. The “upgrade” is vapid and impersonal or in the popular parlance “clean lines”. A matter of taste, I concede. The Kennedy Rose garden was designed by Bunny Mellon, a gifted gardener and inspired garden designer. She was part of a very small team directly led by the President. And that’s the difference. Van Sweden/Oehme is nothing like it was when the partners were active. Their designs were thrilling, rich and gorgeous. Today, the firm is trendy and competent. Routine landscape architects, yawn. On top of that, this design was crushed under the burden of a bloated army of bureaucrats and consultants who, as always, found the lowest common denominator. Poor Melania wouldn’t have had the knowledge or know-how to influence it a whit.

    Yes, there were numerous horticultural and mechanical problems with the garden before the reno. Is there a law that says the garden couldn’t have been replanted according to the original design? Only the law of vanity. You report that the crabapples were damaged by annual digging and planting. Yet they survived for 58 years, and crabapples are not long-lived trees. In the new design they’ve been replaced by a few dinky rose standards. That says it all. There is surely a place for landscape architecture, especially on the rare occasions it’s done well. But it bugs the whatsis out of me that this bunch, along with their usual academic cohorts, has to steal and abuse the word “garden”.

  10. Alas, this curious article was written three weeks before we see the horrendous results. (e.g. the paving of paradise, the putting up of a parking lot — e.g. the removing the iconic crab apple trees, the removal apparently of any color, the blatant paving of walkways to make room for more media…. )

    Would be curious to see what Ms. “garden rant” has to say now…. Three weeks ago, she was telling us to “calm down” — to trust all the snotty elites who were in charge. So what do we think now?

  11. I’d love an update now that the gardens been revealed. The geometric hedges and lack of color seem the antithesis of everything that made and Sweden iconic.

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