A Gardener's View of Life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Today's Easter Egg Roll holds no concerns for White House gardener.

Today's assault on the White House grounds - the Easter Egg Roll - is the biggest annual public event at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For four hours, a steady stream of 30,000 children will gleefully trample the South Lawn; some will push the 7,200 fluorescent-colored hard-boiled eggs across the grass, while others will gather for storytelling and other activities.

To some gardeners, such an event might be considered a horticultural disaster. But if there's anything White House head gardener Irvin Williams loves more than these historic grounds, it's children.

He proudly recounts having helped select the atlas cedar overlooking the Washington Monument where Amy Carter, with her engineer father, built a platform tree house. "She spent a lot nights out there. That meant the Secret Service spent a lot of nights out there too! " Mr. Williams laughs.

So he gives a no-big-deal shrug, as he describes how to restore the lawn to its pristine condition once the Easter crowds have gone. "We'll come in and aerify, and then hit it with a light coat of fertilizer and put water on it. Usually in a week or 10 days its back," he says confidently.

The egg roll is just one of many labors of love for Williams who first started here as a part timer 49 years ago. Jacqueline Kennedy brought him on full time in 1961 and later became the chief gardener, overseeing a staff of anywhere from 11 to 17 people, depending on the season.

The son of a farmer, Williams recalls his childhood dream of working this earth. "Many years ago ... I said someday, back when I was thinnin' corn in West Virginia, maybe I'll make it to Washington where I can plant trees. And by golly it worked out," he says with a grin, perpetually surveying the grounds around him.

Often dressing in a coat and tie, Williams has quietly made his mark on this 19-acre expanse - and the families that have lived here. He has overseen the planting and tending of some 500 trees, 4,000 shrubs as well as watched dozens of rambunctious first kids and grandkids play on the rolling emerald lawns.

During Williams tenure, 10 presidents have strolled through these immaculate gardens and under the canopy of pin oak and ginkgo trees, often deliberating decisions that changed the course of a nation.

As much as the gardening itself, Williams treasures the unique window on history his job has given him, and the relationships with the presidents and their families that have developed.

He recalls with fondness, for example, when Jacqueline Kennedy, amid the chaos of sorting and packing during her final days at the White House, made a last trip to the gardener's office to see Williams. Along with good-byes, she was there to see about Pushinka.

"Could you keep her?" she asked knowing Williams and the dog had grown attached. Pushinka, a gift to John F. Kennedy from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, was a historic gesture of peace in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. She was also a family favorite.

He takes pride in working with Jacqueline Kennedy to design the now famous Rose Garden, with its light-filled lawn, saucer magnolias, and the white-blossomed crab-apple trees.

First ponies

The expansive South Lawn, where the Easter Egg Roll takes place, says Williams, was where the Kennedy children "Caroline and John John would ride their ponies Macaroni and Tex about everyday."

He lowers his voice and recounts that Caroline was caught more than once riding in the parquet-floored East Room where formal state dinners are held. He glances around as he speaks, as if his friend might still face punishment for her equestrian roamings.

Williams knows the history behind every tree within the black iron perimeter. He points, for example, to an oak planted by John Quincy Adams. Almost a century and a half later it was killed by two lightning strikes. But he managed to save limb, graft it to another oak, and it was replanted during the Bush administration.

And he tends the magnolia tree Andrew Jackson planted for his wife Rachel. It too has born the brunt of history but survived. It was wounded a few years ago when an airplane crashed on the South Lawn, pieces of debris impacting against the trunk.

Of course, there are the kinds of challenges every backyard gardener can relate to, particularly the four-legged variety. Williams reveals his secret formula for discouraging the field mice and voles that eat blooming plants off at the roots: A dose of Louisiana hot sauce mixed into the fertilizer.

Outfoxing squirrels

To detour the squirrels from the precision-planted tulips, Williams straps bushel baskets of Georgia peanuts to tree trunks. "We go through hundreds of pounds of peanuts each season," grins Williams.

But he has yet to get the better of the White House raccoons. "When President Bush was here we put a little pool near his West Wing patio and stocked it with a few goldfish but the 'coons would eat the goldfish about as fast as we could put them in!," he recalls.

"They still set the alarms off," which, he adds, doesn't make the Secret Service agents too happy.

If Williams has any political leanings, he doesn't show them. But standing just outside the south window of the Oval Office, Williams points to a bronze statue of an antlered deer. "It reminds me of the saying from the Truman administration, 'The buck stops here'," he says with a smile.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A Gardener's View of Life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today