The Self-Taught Gardener Who Designed the Kennedy White House Rose Garden

September 16, 2020 by

Bunny Mellon_white_house_rose_garden_before_and_afterPhotos: White House Historical Association and White House, via Twitter.

Melania Trump’s recent redesign of the White House Rose Garden did not meet with universal approval. While many appreciated Oehme, van Sweden and Associates and Perry Guillot’s highly pared-back scheme largely composed of green shrubbery with white and pastel flowers, others took to social media to express outrage at the loss of foliage and colorful flowers. Critics described the new gardens as “upsetting” and “an uninteresting patch of lawn” mourning the loss of the garden Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon designed for President Kennedy in 1962.

BunnyMellon_white_house_rose_garden_designBefore the recent renovation, the Rose Garden, walled on two sides by the colonnade of the West Wing, frames a view toward the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office. Photo: White House Historical Association.

A self-taught amateur gardener, Mellon, along with her husband, Paul Mellon, socialized within the circles of the East Coast gentry during the Kennedy and Reagan eras. A friend of Jackie Kennedy, Bunny Mellon’s involvement in the White House garden arose from a casual conversation she had with President Kennedy during a summer picnic at her beach house on Cape Cod. According to Mellon, he told her that the White House had no garden equal in quality or attractiveness to the gardens he’d seen and in which he had been entertained during a recent European trip. It was in Europe, the President said, that he had recognized the importance of gardens surrounding an official residence and their appeal to the sensibilities of all people.

Magnolias_in_bunny_mellon_white_house_rose_garden_designSaucer magnolia outside Oval Office before renovation. Photo: White House Historical Association.

Later, in 1983, Bunny Mellon would explain that hers would be “…a garden that [will] endure and whose atmosphere, with the subtlety of its ever-changing patterns, [will] suggest the ever-changing pattern of history itself.”

bunny_melon_designed_white_house_east_garden_during_johnson_administration.During the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, Rachel Mellon also supervised the redesign of the East Garden, seen here in 2011. In 1965, it had been renamed the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. This image captures the garden looking west towards the South Portico, seen in profile in the background. Photo: Bruce White for The White House Historical Association.


After Mellon’s death in 2014, family and friends of the family including Mellon expert and garden historian, Linda Jane Holden, Bryan Huffman (author of The Gardens of Bunny Mellon), and Thomas Lloyd (Mellon’s grandson), collaborated to publish the recently released Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, a treasure trove of previously unpublished photographs, drawings, journal entries, and garden notes culled from the family’s archive. It’s the how-to gardening book, the editors say, that Bunny Mellon always wanted to publish but never found the time to write.



bunny_mellon_designed_white_house_rose_garden_with_saucer_magnoliasSaucer magnolias transplanted from the Tidal Basin continued to thrive in 2010. Photo: Bruce White for White House Historical Association.

What Would Bunny Think?
“When Bunny Mellon went to the White House and began planning the garden, what glared at her was the whiteness of the mansion, the West Wing, and the colonnade. She found it to be garish,” Holden, a former member of Nancy Reagan’s East Wing staff, told Architectural Digest about the new Rose Garden. “She wanted to soften it, so the garden would enhance the architecture and vice versa. Now, it doesn’t enhance the architecture; it aggravates it. It’s not an inviting environment.” The absent crab apples, Holden added, left her “aghast.”


Some horticulturists have questioned the wisdom of planting in the heat of summer, however, according to the White House plan, the rose bushes and other flowers were planted in containers and will be cultivated in them for a period to protect the roots from densely heated soil.

bunny_mellon_white_house_rose_garden_flower_bedsBefore the renovation, flowers in bloom. White House Historical Association.

The recent 241-page Rose Garden Landscape Report indicates the last major restoration project was in 1981 and describes how the garden’s current renovation has been in the planning stage for a while. But if nothing else, unveiling this new garden during a pandemic wasn’t great timing just as it wasn’t for the construction of a new tennis pavilion in March while the country was in the throes of a national crisis.

melania_trump_white_houe_rose_garden_renovationThe new Rose Garden retains Bunny Mellon’s diamond-shaped design in the flower beds, minus the crabapples. Photo: White House, Office of the First Lady, via Twitter.

bunny_mellon_white_house_rose_garden_diagonal_shapes_flower_bedsIn the northern flower bed of the White House Rose Garden, ‘Katherine’ crabapples planted in repeating diamonds of santolina surrounded by seasonal flowers. From Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon.

The (Cherry) and Crabapples Controversy
No matter what one’s opinion is of the new garden, much of the uproar has been based on a bit of misinformation. Some critics decried that the garden’s cherry trees had been chopped down and centuries-old roses removed. The trees in question were not cherry, but rather ten crabapples (a member of the rose family) that were reportedly shading the plants beneath them. They were not destroyed but removed for care off-site and are scheduled for replanting elsewhere on the White House property.

bunny_mellon_white_house_rose_garden_crabapple_treesCrabapples over flower beds. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

Mellon’s originally planted crabapples, 1928 pale pink ‘Katherines’, were removed in 2003 when, like the current ones, they too apparently grew too large. In 2010 and again in 2019, according to the White House Historical Association, the Katherines were replaced with Spring Snow, a Canadian white-flowering variety.

bunny_mellon_white_house_rose_garden_without_crabapplesCrabapple trees (left) were removed and will be replanted elsewhere on White House grounds. Photo: Twitter.

Bunny Mellon’s design scheme called for roses, perennials, annuals, and herbs to be planted beneath and around the crabapples. The new garden no longer features the crab apples but white and pale pink rose bushes intermixed with seasonal bulbs and annuals fill the beds.

New_white_house_rose_garden_design_planThe new Rose Garden design plan.

War of the Roses
After the unveiling of the new garden, over 93,00 social media posts expressed outrage that “century-old roses had been ripped out for the new garden,” with posts such as, “Melania dug up the WH Rose Garden, removing roses from every First Lady since 1913” and “Many of those rose bushes were from ALL the First Ladies of America, going all the way back to Ellen Louise Wilson in 1913…”

bunny_mellon_white_house_rose_garden_rose_bushesRoses in bloom Thursday, May 14, 2020, in White House Rose Garden. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour.) Public domain /Wikimedia Commons.

Although first lady Ellen Louise Axson Wilson oversaw the planting of the original rose garden over a century ago in 1913, those particular rose bushes were long gone, having been replaced numerous times over the years in subsequent garden redesigns. The new garden plan indicates that more than 50 varieties of roses have been planted in the White House Rose Garden throughout the years since its inception. President Ronald Reagan designated the rose the national flower in 1986.

white_house_rose_garden_1913_by_First_Lady Ellen_WilsonThe Rose Garden was planted in 1913 according to First Lady Ellen Wilson’s modifications of plans by George Burnap. Photo: Library of Congress.

When Reuters asked Marta McDowell, garden historian and author of All the President’s Gardens, if it were possible that the roses from all previous first ladies since 1913 would still have been in place prior to this current redesign, she said there was “not a chance” this would be the case. McDowell added that “In 1962, the construction of the Kennedy rose garden took the site down to the dirt. Since then, most administrations have changed out some of the roses—hybrid tea and floribunda roses don’t always thrive, especially in D.C. humidity. So that statement is not factually correct.”

bunny_mellon_design_white_house_rose_garden_pink_rosesPublic domain /Wikimedia Commons.

Before this latest renovation, only about a dozen rose bushes remained and 200 new pastel-hued rose bushes have been planted.

bunny_mellon_design_white_house_rose_garden_white_rosesPublic domain /Wikimedia Commons.

Infrastructure and Lawn
The new garden includes improved infrastructure to solve drainage issues and other changes to make it more accessible for people with disabilities. (Three weeks after its reopening, the garden infrastructure required major repairs to correct drainage issues and the lawn had to be re-sodded after damage incurred during the GOP convention held there.)

bunny_mellon_design_white_house_rose_garden_colorful_flower_bedsColorful flower beds before renovation. Public domain /Wikimedia Commons.

Mellon incorporated elements from both formal French garden design (think Gardens of Versailles) along with the more relaxed English garden traditions (think Sissinghurst) to create her own distinctly American garden style. Many considered the Rose Garden’s crabapples central to Bunny Mellon’s original design and her signature style.


From a copy of the 1821 Le Jardin Fruitier by Louis Claude Noisette (1772–1849), Mellon discovered Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, the original expert gardener and agronomist who, between 1678 and 1683 with architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, created the Potager du Roi, the royal kitchen garden at the Palace of Versailles.

garden_secrets_of_bunny_mellon_espalliersEspalliers. From Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon.

Mellon describes “the extraordinary seventeenth-century gardener who introduced methods of fruit culture and pruning that are still followed today throughout Europe.” She notes that the garden “planned 300 years ago still exists today, a living witness to the wisdom and theories of La Quintinie, where acres of espalier fruit trees are protected by the Government of France.” Later, Bunny Mellon would learn how to prune espaliers from the gardeners at le Potager du Roi.

Garden_secrets_of_bunny_mellon_book_spreadFrom Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon.

Despite her elevated social class, Bunny Mellon was not considered snooty nor was she afraid to get her hands dirty. She broke a lot of rules and prided herself on her brand of imperfect perfection.

journal_notes_garden_secrets_of_bunny_mellonBunny Mellon’s journal notes. From Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon.

Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon takes readers back into history, particularly to the Kennedy era of American history that became known as Camelot. The book includes some of Bunny’s practical suggestions she hoped would encourage beginners along with a few tips from what she learned throughout her journey:

“Allow plants to roam a bit—like flax, daisies, columbine, phlox—like clouds that float over an organized design.”

bunny_mellon_designer_of_white_house_rose_gardenBunny Mellon. Photo, White House Historical Association.

Each page offers a glimpse into Bunny Mellon’s private world where she shares her gardening standards, cultivation methods, how she put things together and pulled them apart, and also warns not to overdo things.

In his forward to the book, my personal friend P. Allen Smith very astutely reminds us that “one can tell much about the deeper makeup of a person by the gardens they create.”


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