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‘Keep plants out of politics’: What critics of Melania Trump’s Rose Garden get wrong

A view of the restored Rose Garden at the White House in Washington last Saturday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a Rose Garden by any other design might not, it seems.

In late July, First Lady Melania Trump announced that she would renovate the 125-foot by 60-foot plot behind the White House. On Saturday, she unveiled the changes to reporters.

The reaction was swift. And harsh.

Slate called the revamp “fit for an unchecked presidency” and “Versailles in miniature.” One political strategist lamented that “she cut down Jackie’s trees!” A young activist called former First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s Rose Garden “colorful and diverse and beautiful,” whereas “Melania just made it ... white.” The backlash spanned both ends of the political spectrum.

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But, at least according to Marta McDowell, author of “All the Presidents’ Gardens” and an expert on gardening history (“Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life”), not much has changed from the traditional Rose Garden design.

“It looks very much the same,” McDowell said during a phone interview. “It’s this little diamond shape with a zigzag little parterre and it’s infilled with plants — many of which are roses.”

An illustration of Rachel "Bunny" Lambert Mellon's original Rose Garden plan for President John F. Kennedy.
(Marta McDowell)

The Rose Garden was first planted in 1913 by First Lady Ellen Wilson. Almost half a century later, Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon redesigned the garden for her friends, John and Jackie Kennedy.

“People were making this out like, ‘Well, [Melania] wanted to be like Jacqueline Kennedy, and therefore she’s doing this Rose Garden,’” McDowell said. “Well, that was odd to me from the start, because this really was more President Kennedy’s.”

It was JFK who asked Bunny for help. In the course of that 1962 redesign, the existing garden was “scraped to the ground,” according to McDowell. So much digging was done that Bunny’s team accidentally cut into a cable buried in a corner of the garden — a World War II-era hotline that set off the nation’s military alert.

Trump’s renovation, then, was part of a tradition of garden gut-renovation.

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Photos of Melania’s garden (photographed in the summer) may seem more pale than in earlier pictures (seen in the spring), but Bunny in fact planted mostly neutral shades.

“The roses are mostly plant colors and white (and now include the John F. Kennedy rose),” she wrote in the 1972 book “The White House Gardens. A History and Pictorial Record.” “The reason being that too many red roses mixed with other flowers tend to give a garden a heaviness and sadness that do not belong.”

President John F. Kennedy addresses a group of young men at a Rose Garden ceremony for Boys Nation.
President John F. Kennedy addresses a group of young men at a Rose Garden ceremony for Boys Nation. Future President Clinton is among the group.
(Historical / Corbis via Getty Images)

One Twitter user wrote that the current first lady “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The limestone paving is new, yes, but as McDowell pointed out, it runs along the border, not down the middle. Every administration makes tweaks, and over time, they don’t all add up.

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“It’s different people and different needs at different times when they put in different paving material,” McDowell said. “So they straightened that out, and they made a walkway, so that you didn’t have to cut across the grass.” President Kennedy hated when people trampled the lawn, the author said.

At the official reopening Saturday, Melania clarified that changes like the paths improved access.

“These improvements also make the garden fully accessible to all Americans,” she said, “including those with disabilities.”

One thing the new garden is not, said McDowell, is slapdash. “This is not Melania Trump drawing a plan on the back of a napkin,” she said. A 241-page long Rose Garden report was drawn up before any changes were made.

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Cover art from Marta McDowell's 2016 book "All the Presidents' Gardens," which made the The New York Times Best Seller list.
Cover art from Marta McDowell’s 2016 book “All the Presidents’ Gardens,” which made the The New York Times Best Seller list.
(Marta McDowell)

So why were people so up in arms over the changes? Potentially because the first lady will give her Republican National Convention speech from the Rose Garden tonight, McDowell speculated. The garden has long been viewed as a symbol of the presidency, and political addresses from White House grounds are thought to violate norms separating the president’s office from the campaign.

But the biggest question, perhaps, is why the country is discussing a bed of roses in the middle of multiple national crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse and the looming threat of evictions, ongoing police violence against Black and brown communities, and climate change.

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow tweeted that “If this isn’t a Marie Antoinette moment I don’t know what is.”

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“Who cares about a redesigned rose garden when we’re in the middle of a pandemic, 175k+ people are dead and millions are out of work?” he asked.

The L.A. Times’ own culture writer Carolina Miranda added: “If you are reviewing the aesthetics of the new White House rose garden and fail to mention that there are kids in cages on the border, you are not only doing it wrong, you are part of the problem.”

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As for McDowell, though she is no fan of the current administration, she sees no problems with the redesign. “It’s really better to keep plants out of politics,” she said. “Because they don’t care.”


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