Israel’s First Lady Joins the Backyard Gardening Trend

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First Lady Nechama Rivlin sits in the garden of the the president's residence in Jerusalem, September 2016.
First Lady Nechama Rivlin sits in the garden of the the president's residence in Jerusalem, September 2016.Credit: Michal Fattal
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Israel’s first lady, Nechama Rivlin, has trouble making her way through the garden at the president's residence in Jerusalem, and gets some help from an oxygen concentrator. It was decided to grow plants, such as angelonias and balsam, on the patio, so she wouldn’t have to walk far to reach them. “I grew up in a moshav, close to the earth,” says Rivlin, the wife of President Reuven Rivlin, “although I left when I was 18, so I didn’t completely turn into an agriculturalist. But until this day, everything that has to do with agriculture is important to me. We had fruit trees. There were these kind of plates that we used to water with a hose and [my mother] would plant all sorts of things so that we didn’t need to go to the supermarket for anything,” she recalls.

The garden at the president's residence in Jerusalem, September 2016.Credit: Michal Fattal

The spirit Rivlin took with her to the presidential residence fits in with the spirit of the times, as many Israelis take to a the growing trend of cultivating vegetable gardens in their homes. The well-gardened inner yard of the president’s residence is hardly the site of a guerrilla urban garden, but the current tenant’s love for agriculture and plants has turned gardening into a central theme here. When she moved in, Rivlin wondered what she could contribute to the residence. Alongside rearranging the art on display, her love for agriculture and plants encouraged her to make the patio bloom again — as well as create two communal gardens outside. Dishon and Menashe Nissim, the gardeners who tend to the them, join our conversation in one of the shady spots. The patio, which lets light into the house, is built like a sukkah. “During Sukkot, we lay palm fronds on the concrete rafters and eat meals out there,” says Rivlin. “There are also butterflies that lay their eggs on the patio, which turn into larvae, pupae and butterflies. That’s how my grandchildren learned about the life cycle of a butterfly.”

The garden in the president’s residence was designed by architect Abba Elhanani, who planned the structure, and landscape architects Miller-Bloom. At the edge of the bower is an amphitheater covered in vegetation that serves as a reception area. The agronomists responsible for planting the garden designed it as a botanical microcosm of Israeli flora. It is one of the most beautiful gardens created in Israel: free of peculiarities, over-design and superfluous materials. With grass, trees, flowers, simple tiles and works of art, it is an island of green in the heart of a stuffy city. It wouldn’t hurt to open it to the public.

A bird feeder in the garden at the president's residence in Jerusalem, September 2016.Credit: Michal Fattal

The garden itself has gone through various phases. At the initiative of Nina Katzir, the wife of Israel's 4th president Ephraim Katzir, 50 olive trees were brought here from the Judean Hills. Three citrus trees were planted in the southern garden in 1985 to represent the settling of new Israeli communities. Five cedar trees were planted at the request of Ora Herzog, the wife of Chaim Herzog, the country's 6th president, to represent the north. Now, Rivlin is adding her metamorphosis.

Over the years, the couple lived in apartment houses, “so [we] didn’t have much influence over the garden.” In their last home, on Jerusalem's Nof Harim Street, she resurfaced her old passion. “We had a neighbor there, Ruth Begin — no doubt you’ve heard of her,” Rivlin says with a smile, mentioning the wife of politician Benny Begin. “Part of her personality was to work in the garden. They had everything there. She would get up at 4 A.M. to work. When we arrived here, we thought — Orit and I — ‘What can we do to leave my mark on the president’s residence?’” she says, referring to her personal assistant. “It’s important to me that children know pepper is not just bought at the supermarket. And it was important for me to have a communal garden here, like there are throughout the city,” she adds, explaining how she joined the urban trend.

Herbs and plants in the garden of the president's residence in Jerusalem, September 2016.Credit: Michal Fattal

Her influence was felt as soon as the question of whom to recruit to work on the garden came up. “We decided it was important to nurture at-risk youth. A group of children from the Beit Hatzayar and Gymnasia Rehavia schools were brought here. We had three meetings with them and they bonded with one another. These are kids on the verge of prison. It isn’t easy. We worked on all sorts of things in the garden and we also made nest boxes for birds. These are activities that develop their hands,” Rivlin notes. In addition, students with special needs were invited from the Beit Hinuch school. When asked what influence the gardening had on the various youth and children who worked in the garden, she says, “The very fact that they came here, even those with disabilities, is enough for me.”

In one of the gardens, constructed hanging window boxes are filled with herbs like basil, oregano, hyssop, mint, white-leaved savory and sage. “I learned botany for my undergraduate degree at the Hebrew University. That’s how I know all the plant names,” says Rivlin. In the second garden under her management are spiral flowerbeds with seasonal, perennial plants: alyssums, lobelias, coleus, begonias, spiderwort and succulents, too. Currently, there aren’t edible vegetables in the garden. “The earth here isn’t good enough, but we could put dirt in pots and grow radishes and beans,” she supposes.

Rivlin declares that she supports taking care of the environment, and that there is a link between growing plants, urban gardening, recycling and protecting open spaces. “Everything is connected to everything; if only there was more awareness," she says, choosing her words carefully. "Connecting to the earth is so important. It’s better to build upward; not everyone needs to live in a villa. I can’t go to protests, but I would happily join protests with those who oppose building on the beach.” At Rivlin’s request, a recycling room has been added to the president’s residency for paper, plastic, glass and batteries. They've even installed a compost bin. “We put all the peels in there and use the compost that forms to fertilize the garden,” she says.

First Lady Nechama Rivlin in the garden at the president's residence in Jerusalem, September 2016.Credit: Michal Fattal