What a difference one First Lady can make – and not just if she’s in the White House. Hope Taft was Ohio’s First Lady from 1999 to 2007 and took the opportunity to totally transform the 3.5-acre landscape around the governor’s mansion. Here’s what’s tucked into what became Ohio’s Heritage Garden, located in a residential neighborhood in Columbus:
Re-creations of Ohio’s natural ecosystems – an Appalachian garden, a dune garden, woodland, bog, Pioneer Garden, a home for wildflowers rescued from developments, ponds with turtles and frogs, examples of Ohio’s native geology. Not to mention a clone of an actual Johnny Appleseed tree – old Johnny’s a big part of the state’s plant history. And there’s still room for a vegetable and cut flower garden. But Taft didn’t create just ANY ecological demonstration site, but one that still looks grand enough for its official duties. For example, its “formal prairie” demonstrates that formal design and naturalistic/native plant choices can go hand in hand. And there’s still a place for lawns and rose gardens and traditional bedding plants, too – all of Ohio’s horticultural traditions are included.
How’d she do it? Well, by bringing together her friends, Taft told me in an interview. Like landscape architects, botanists, Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources and lots of others, known around the mansion as “Hope’s Army”.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
To parley her transformation of these 3.5 acres into a landscaping revolution across the Buckeye State, Taft and her team spread the word through tours, an eco-lecture series at the residence, and a book, Our First Family’s Home, published in 2008. And when the National Governors Association met in Columbus the governors’ chiefs of staff were given a tour of the garden and, according to one source, their reaction was: “Duh! Why NOT use governor’s mansion grounds to demonstrate the state’s natural history?” There’s no tally of how many governors’ grounds were actually changed that day, but at least the seeds were sown.
Perhaps most impressive of all is Taft’s ingenious plan to take the message on the road. Ohio’s Master Gardener Volunteers are trained as “ambassadors” for the Heritage Garden, then given CDs of PowerPoints about the garden and its message that they show in their own counties. The corps of ambassadors are then invited back for updates and lunch, which goes a long way to keeping them informed and passionate about the message.
Check it out. Under “Heritage Garden” you’ll find a virtual tour, plant database, physiographic regions of Ohio, sources of native plants and seeds, and those lectures at the garden (primarily on the topic of Ohio’s native plants).
NATURE IS NONPARTISAN
So after eight years at the helm of this wonderful creation, how did it feel to turn it all over to the next administration – of a different party, no less? Well, Hope Taft wouldn’t know because the current First Lady, Frances Strickland, appointed Taft to carry on, as chair of the Heritage Garden Committee of the Friends of the governor’s Residence and Heritage Garden. And though Governor Strickland is no gardener, he’s turned into quite the garden-lover. I’m told he walks the grounds almost daily (weather permitting) and especially enjoys visiting his favorite turtle, Jackie. (Yes, they’re all named.)