Andrew Jackson hired an English gardener, William Frost, in 1819 at the recommendation of a friend to plan and lay out the garden at The Hermitage. The new brick Hermitage mansion was going up and the Jacksons needed a new garden. The garden was designed by an Englishman from Philadelphia in 1819-20 as a typical four-square English garden common in Europe since the Middle Ages, consisting of four quadrants and circular center beds. These were planted with flowers, herbs, shrubs, vines, vegetables, berries, and fruit trees. Very few early descriptions of the garden at The Hermitage are recorded, for unlike some of his presidential predecessors, Andrew Jackson was apparently little interested in horticulture. However, early visitors noted that the garden was Rachel Jackson’s special interest. “I never saw anyone more enthusiastically fond of flowers” In 1825, Rachel purchased flowering plants including geraniums, daisies, wallflowers, and polyanthus from Cincinnati. “I never saw anyone more enthusiastically fond of flowers than Rachel,” remarked one early visitor.
When Rachel Jackson died in 1829, Andrew Jackson had her buried in the garden. Originally, a small grave house covered her burial place and in 1831 architect David Morrison designed a tomb modeled after a Grecian monument for Rachel. Later Andrew Jackson was buried beneath the tomb as well and other family members were buried in an adjoining plot.
The garden may have been re-designed several times. In 1988, archaeologists noted two brick edged beds under the library wing of the mansion. These may have been flowerbeds, covered over by the enlargement of the house in 1831. In 1849, after Andrew Jackson’s death, Andrew Jackson Junior and his wife Sarah undertook several improvements to the garden including fencing and adding brick edging around the beds. At that time small fruits, such as raspberries and strawberries were noted in the garden in addition to flowers and shrubs.
When Andrew Jackson Junior’s financial situation became difficult in the late 1850s, the garden went into a decline. By the time the Ladies’ Hermitage Association was formed in 1889, the beds were weedy, fences broken, and shrubs and trees were dead or dying. The LHA devoted great effort to the rejuvenation of the garden. They interviewed people who had visited The Hermitage in early years to learn about plants and they also had Andrew Jackson’s granddaughter Rachel Jackson Lawrence as a source. Old roses, peonies, iris, crape myrtles, and other older varieties of plants filled the garden.
The one-acre, early 19th Century flower garden located beside the Hermitage mansion is perhaps one of the most authentic in America. Today’s plants date back to that era, and some – including several trees and flowering bulbs – were planted in Jackson’s time or are direct descendants of the originals. In fact, if Andrew and Rachel Jackson were to walk the garden today they might feel right at home. The only certain changes made after Jackson’s time are the white picket fence (replacing cedar rails), new path bricks laid in the late 1800s, and the appropriation of gravel by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 to cover the dirt walkways.
The garden today has been restored to its former glory, with something in bloom or berry virtually all year. In February, long before the last snow or frost, daffodils, crocuses, and tulips begin their colorful dance; followed by fragrant hyacinths and more tulips in March, then grape hyacinths, and fruit trees and flowing shrubs in full array. April brings the dogwood and iris, followed in May by a full orchestra of white and pink peonies. Annuals, perennials, and heirloom roses take over the summer months, some lasting long past December’s frost and snow. By January the rear of the garden’s center beds blooms the tiny, yellow, clove-fragrant blooms of a winter honeysuckle bush.
As with all growing things, this one never stands still.