“Planted by my hand”: John Quincy Adams, Arborist

by Neal Millikan, Adams Papers

Today, 22 April, is Earth Day, and in honor of this event, we will explore John Quincy Adams’s post-presidential stint as a horticulturalist. When Adams left the White House in March 1829, he believed he would spend the rest of his life in idle retirement at Peacefield, the family home in Quincy, Mass. By November, Adams worried in his diary that “my occupations are engrossed for transitory purposes . . . I am losing day after day without atchieving any thing.” The following summer he sought to remedy this situation by establishing an “orchard” or “plantation,” and by 17 June 1830, Adams’s diary noted that he had planted walnuts, oaks, chestnuts, elms, and a variety of “fruit-trees” including peaches, apples, plums, and apricots, “which I have attempted to raise from the stone and seed.”

John Quincy Adams relished the work outdoors. His diary entry for 4 August revealed his devotion to this task: “Every plant that I raise from the seed takes hold of my affections; and when it perishes by a stroke of the Sun . . . or a voracious insect, I feel a disappointed hope.” Like today’s gardener, he battled pests invading his plants; Adams noted in his diary that he was plagued with “Wasps, flies, black ants, Squash bugs, Turnep worms, and insects numberless.”

Double-Blossom Peach” by A. S. Adams
Watercolor drawing of a “Double-Blossom Peach” by A. S. Adams, April 3, 1828. Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society

Adams became fascinated with studying the development of his seedlings. He recorded in his diary on 15 October: “The more time and toil I spend upon this Nursery, the more it takes possession of me.” In that diary entry he also summarized his gardening activities over the previous months: “I have passed nearly two hours of every fair day in the Nursery— Have dug, and manured and planted with my own hands, in the hope of having the next Spring and Summer a thick and various crop of fruit and forest trees to observe and preserve so far as may be found practicable.” While John Quincy realized many of his seedlings would perish, “if I can save and raise even one in a hundred of them, my labour will not be lost.”

By November, John Quincy Adams had finished setting out his plantings for the season and wrote in his diary on the 27th about his future expectations for his endeavors, hopeful that “in the twentieth century . . . my Grand-children may live to see, an Apple-tree from a seed planted by my hand.” Adams was proud that his land in Quincy was “now pregnant with at least ten thousand seeds of fruit and forest . . . and in a century from this day may bear timber for the floating Castles of my Country, and fruit for the subsistence health and comfort of my descendants.”