First lady Michelle Obama’s second job, as gardener in chief, could soon be taking up much more of her time—and White House turf. In a move that would put her in Jacqueline Kennedy’s company among first ladies who’ve radically changed the White House and its grounds, plans are being discussed to till up another part of the South Lawn to make way for a garden of flowers she could use to fill vases in the East and West Wings.
White House chief florist Laura Dowling says that adding a second garden to the first lady’s sprawling veggie patch would provide blossoms to use in her trademark “garden style” arrangements. “In terms of using things from the garden, I feel like that’s in the works. We all know about her organic vegetable garden, and all she’s done to promote healthy eating and living. I think the next step then is a cutting garden,” Dowling said when we quizzed her at the recent Philadelphia International Flower Show. [See photos of Michelle Obama.]
The problem: Dowling doesn’t have permission to snip flowers from the White House grounds. “Right now I think that the horticulturist wouldn’t encourage me to go out with my clippers,” she says. Not even the Rose Garden? “Not from the Rose Garden,” she says. “I’d get into too much trouble.”
Asked what she’d advise the first lady to grow in her cut-flower garden, Dowling said that roses and hydrangea would be the best to start with, along with tulips.
Unlike her recent predecessors, Obama has taken a new floral direction in the White House, choosing Dowling and her romantic French garden style of arranging flowers. Dowling says the first lady’s goal is “American style” displays that aren’t formal. “What she’s indicated to me is that she wants this feeling of garden style, natural, casual elegance,” the florist says. Dowling approaches those objectives in how she poses the cut flowers and even the vase they’re in, sometimes gluing items like little red potatoes to a vase to make it look natural.
“The first lady is remarkable in her sense of style,” Dowling adds, “and you can tell by the way she dresses.”
The importance of using flowers can’t be overstated, says Dowling, who heads a team of four full-time florists and several part-time workers. “Flowers play more than a decorative role,” she says. Through colors or even an environmental theme, “they could play almost a diplomatic role.” And the first lady wants the displays where visitors enter, Dowling notes, in order “to use flowers to welcome people to the White House.”
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.