Melania Trump’s White House Rose Garden still a thorny issue

Former first lady’s controlled horticulture clashes with move to biodiverse wild flowers

Even the smallest wildflower garden can encourage wildlife to offset carbon emissions. Photograph: Helaine Weide/Moment/Getty

Even the smallest wildflower garden can encourage wildlife to offset carbon emissions. Photograph: Helaine Weide/Moment/Getty

 

We haven’t seen or heard much about Melania Trump since she left the White House, hand in hand with Donald, for their new life in sunny, Republican Florida. She has avoided social media, ignored the press and been photographed only briefly here and there, stepping out in New York or dining behind a museum-style rope in the Mar-a-Lago club house.

But last week the former first lady resurfaced on Twitter, or at least the Office of Melania Trump did, with a blistering attack on historian Michael Beschloss of NBC News who keeps telling the world about the terrible job Melania did on the White House Rose Garden.

Last summer – was it really just a year ago that Trumps seemed to rule the world? – Melania unveiled plans to renew the Rose Garden, a treasured space outside the Oval Office with roses said to have been planted by a century of president’s wives. It was a brave move given the garden’s totemic status. The Rose Garden was last transformed in 1962 by Jackie Kennedy with the help of celebrated garden designer and socialite Bunny Mellon, heiress to the Listerine fortune who had her gardening clothes made by Balenciaga.

Mellon’s garden, created in just four months, was a triumph of simplicity and taste with its pretty crab apple trees shedding pink blossoms on the colourful roses corralled in diamond-shaped beds below. JFK loved it though he didn’t enjoy it for long. In a thank-you letter to Mellon, Jackie stressed that her husband’s happiest times in the White House had been spent there and suggested “he will always be remembered” for creating such a scenic spot.

Time moves on and gardens decline. The Rose Garden proved difficult to maintain and the cherished crab apple trees had to be pulled up and replaced several times over, while the harsh Washington winters and roasting summers did it for the roses. Big White House events would see lush potted roses planted among the stragglers to bring it up to scratch. By 2020, when Melania took charge, sources say there were just 12 rose bushes in bloom and the rest was, frankly, a bit of mess.

Withered ones

Melania hired not one but two American garden design firms and the process was overseen by two White House preservation committees. Any suggestion that she wore a jacket embroidered with the words “I don’t care about roses, do you?” is pure fiction. In fact she commissioned 200 fresh white and pink ones to replace the old withered ones.

A torrent of abuse from anti-Trumpers, not all of them keen gardeners, focused on the sterile neatness of Melania's work

The garden reopened to fanfare last August but people didn’t like it. A torrent of abuse from anti-Trumpers, not all of them keen gardeners, focused on the sterile neatness of it, the murder of Bunny’s crab apple trees, the uprooting of bygone first ladies’ roses and so on and on. One political commentator, Howard Fineman, compared the new garden to “a new-fascist parade ground”. Others called it Melania’s Marie Antoinette moment as Covid raged through the US. Historian Michael Beschloss, who writes histories of American presidents, weighed in with an outraged tweet claiming “decades of American history” had disappeared from the garden.

The Rose Garden did look a bit bare and blah and hotel-like, and it was far cry, in PR terms, from Michelle Obama’s friendly kitchen garden with its abundant messiness and happy children. Michelle was wise not to lay a finger on Jackie’s legacy although the Obamas would almost certainly have got things bang on trend. There would surely have been wild roses and swaying grasses, beehives and bat boxes, fragrant toe-tickling thyme between the paving stones, mistletoe, bird feeders in the bushes and probably hammocks.

The Rose Garden row has rumbled on and more than 80,000 people have signed an online petition urging First Lady Jill Biden to restore it to “its former glory”. Instead, clearly not wanting to have anything to do with Rosegate, she kindly tweeted a picture of the garden in bloom this summer.

Beschloss reignited things earlier this month with a Twitter post showing the garden as it was a year ago, calling it a “grim result” but Melania’s camp hit back with a picture of the garden as it is now, with the roses at last in bloom. It does look a lot prettier and, over time, it will settle down and have its admirers. It’s fair to say, however, that the Rose Garden, like a lot of Melania’s style, is drastically at odds with the zeitgeist. With its straight lines, close-cropped lawn and heavily boxed in flowers it’s a hangover from the last century. The gardening world has moved a very long way from herbaceous borders and smooth turf to embrace meadow flowers left to their own devices and plants chosen as much for their pollinating power as their beauty. Highly structured gardens are out and nothing says passé more than clipped lawns, straight paths and box hedging.

Lawn order

Ireland’s local authorities have responded with gusto to the new aesthetic, planting swathes of wild flowers on verges and roundabouts. Our government would like to see the country’s two million gardens follow suit and, to this end, has published a very nice guide called Gardening for Biodiversity that shows how even the smallest gardens can encourage wildlife offset carbon emissions. Ask your local council’s heritage division about acquiring a copy.

Many of us are doing our best, cutting out pesticides, letting snails do their worst and throwing wild flower seeds about

Many of us are doing our best in our own patches, cutting out pesticides, letting snails do their worst and throwing wild flower seeds about in the hope they’ll give us carpets of cornflowers and daisies and not scutch grass. It’s not always successful. In fact it’s extremely difficult to get that wild flower look at home and though the bees might be having a field day, the biodiverse garden can often just look like one big mess but with more birds.

Lawn order may come back into fashion. Veteran garden writer Robin Lane Fox wrote recently of his fear that the Chelsea Garden Show, which takes place next month, having been cancelled in May, will be full of wild garden displays rather than more orderly and luscious exhibitions of old. As far as he’s concerned, wild flowers are best appreciated when driving past them at speed and “more suited to motorway banks than small domestic gardens”. There will be many who miss the order of public parks with the banks of seasonal flowers and who have fond memories of summer afternoons with the lawnmower cutting stripes in the lawn. They may look at Melania’s horticulture efforts and think that, in the end, Jackie would have approved.

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