Woodrow and Edith Wilson in the White House's East Garden in the summer of 1915. (President Woodrow Wilson House)

President John F. Kennedy acknowledged that he stood in the glamour-shadow of his wife when he famously remarked that he was “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” But it was JFK rather than Jackie who gave the White House its most elegant landscape feature.

Before it became the Rose Garden, the area between the West Wing and mansion proper was a plain and tired lawn. “It is driving the President crazy,” said Mrs. Kennedy, and its inadequacy was reinforced when the Kennedys visited Europe and saw regal gardens in England and Austria.

Kennedy asked his friend Rachel “Bunny” Mellon to design something special, which she did with her friend Perry Wheeler, the society landscape architect. The result was the Rose Garden, a place that blended history, style and utility to become one of the most prominent gardens on the planet, a gathering spot for heroes, monarchs and popes, not to mention presidents. Beyond its roses, the garden is framed in boxwood, graced by flowering trees and formed around a ceremonial lawn.

Given its timeless grace, the visitor today might think that the Rose Garden was always a part of the grounds of America’s first garden, but as Marta McDowell’s absorbing book drives home, the 18 acres around the executive mansion have been constantly tweaked, changed and replanted over the past two centuries. The modern Rose Garden not only is relatively fresh but also served to elevate the place after the homely touches of the Trumans and Eisenhowers, who brought elements such as a putting green, a porchlike balcony to the South Portico, and foundation shrubbery on the north side worthy of a Levittown Cape Cod, “only much bigger,” writes McDowell.

You cannot blame successive presidents and their families for the urge to tinker thus. This is, after all, their home for up to eight years — a palace, playground and fortress rolled into one. Harry Truman called it “the great white jail.”

No wonder its accumulated elements have included such functional features as Gerald Ford’s swimming pool, George H.W. Bush’s horseshoe pit and Bill Clinton’s jogging track. These somewhat dull accretions weave a historic fabric into the White House garden, but we discover that some of its finest horticultural features have been lost. The Wilsons’ East Garden was a Beaux-Arts jewel designed by Beatrix Farrand, who went on to give us her masterpiece at Dumbarton Oaks.

An extensive greenhouse complex was developed between the 1850s and the turn of the 20th century, but it was pulled down to make way for the West Wing expansion under Theodore Roosevelt. Henry Pfister, the German gardener there for 35 years, lost not only his plants but his job. He was forced to open a florist shop, but “the Roosevelts gave him excellent references,” McDowell writes.

First lady Michelle Obama, who has just harvested her last spring vegetable garden at the White House, has added a powerful layer to this chapter. The vegetable garden, its apiary and pollinator garden all capture the horticultural zeitgeist of our age.

One of the most accomplished gardeners in recent White House times was Laura Bush, but she waited until her return to Texas to engage in some serious landscape creation. When it comes to gardening, being a tenant has its limitations.

Adrian Higgins writes about gardening for The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @adrian_higgins.

All the Presidents’ Gardens
Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses — How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America

By Marta McDowell

Timber. 335 pp. $29.95