The White House Garden Sets a Powerful Example

By Staff
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The White House Garden Sets a Powerful Example

The beautiful food garden on the White House lawn is helping to promote a national conversation about the joys of gardening and the importance of eating fresh, local fruits and vegetables. 

April/May 2013

By Michelle Obama 

On March 20, 2009, I was like any other hopeful gardener with a pot out on the windowsill or a small plot by the back door. I was nervously watching the sky. Would it freeze? Would it rain? I had spent two months settling into a new house in a new city. My girls had started a new school; my husband, a new job. And now I was embarking on something I had never attempted before: starting a garden.

I wanted this garden to be more than just a plot of land growing vegetables on the White House lawn. I wanted it to be the starting point for something bigger. I also wanted this new White House garden to be a “learning garden,” a place where people could have a hands-on experience of working the soil, and children who have never seen a plant sprout could put down seeds and seedlings that would take root. And I wanted them to come back for the harvest, to be able to see and taste the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors.

Regardless of how the world may change around us, we still have the power to make good choices about what we feed our families. And gardens across the country are playing a vital role in that process. 

So I had high hopes for those tiny seeds and seedlings going into the grounds of the White House on that spring morning back in 2009. I knew that growing a garden wouldn’t be easy. Some things that get planted just won’t grow, and others grow far too well, taking over the garden. But whatever detours or bumps in the road we would face, I was determined that this garden would succeed.

Fortunately, it did. The seeds took root; the plants grew and produced all kinds of fruits and vegetables; and each new season in our garden brought new gifts and lessons. Spring was a time for new beginnings, when we would plant the seeds of what we hoped to harvest for the rest of the year. Summer was a season of rapid, often breathtaking growth, with plants shooting up and new fruits and vegetables ripening every day. The bounty of fall taught us how, by investing ourselves — our time, energy and love — we were able to fulfill the promise of spring and share our harvest with others.

And over the past three years, our White House kitchen garden has bloomed into so much more. It’s helped us start a new conversation about the food we eat and how it affects our children’s health. And people from all walks of life and every sector of our society are coming together and using gardens — and the food they grow and lessons they teach — to build a healthier future for our children.

It is my hope that our garden’s story — and the stories of gardens across America — will inspire families, schools and communities to try their own hand at gardening and enjoy all the gifts of health, discovery, and connection a garden can bring.

     Even though small fruit trees, herbs and potted tomatoes have made appearances at the White House over the years, until Michelle Obama started her garden project, Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II victory garden was the last time food had been grown on the White House lawn. Mrs. Obama broke ground on the White House garden with help from local schoolchildren in 2009, and the garden has evolved and grown every year since. Many hands have helped grow the fruits and vegetables, including those of the first lady, White House staff, volunteers and dozens of people from the local community. The gardeners have experimented with different bed designs and setups, eventually settling on slightly raised beds. This is the garden in spring 2011. 

  Michelle Obama says her goal was to make the White House vegetable garden a place for children to play and learn. Many enthusiastic kids have planted and worked in the garden, including students from Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C. (pictured here), fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary School in D.C., and a Girl Scout troop from Fairport, N.Y.
  In June 2011, American Indian and Alaskan Native youth joined Michelle Obama for a traditional planting of a Three Sisters garden consisting of squash, beans and corn. Jefferson Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians, blessed the planting. The Three Sisters garden includes ‘Cherokee White Eagle’ corn, ‘Rattlesnake’ pole beans, and ‘Seminole’ squash (all pictured here), the seeds of which were donated by the National Museum of the American Indian.
  Dozens of different crops grow in the garden, and each is labeled by variety. The soil, amended with organic compost and mulched with straw, has produced all types of gorgeous greens such as lettuce, spinach, collards, bok choy and kale; garden classics such as tomatoes, carrots, peppers, squash, beans and peas; fall favorites such as broccoli and cabbage; many lovely herbs; fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, figs, raspberries and blackberries; bulbing beauties including onions, shallots and garlic; and slightly less common crops such as sweet potatoes, rhubarb, tomatillos, kohlrabi and ginger. And that’s just the beginning of the list! 
  The White House kitchen garden produces more than just garden-variety fruits and vegetables. Michelle and the many others who work on the project experiment with new crops each year, which has led them to try fruiting mushroom logs, making pickled vegetables with their harvest, and setting up a beehive and harvesting hundreds of pounds of gorgeous honey over three years’ time. The well-watered mushroom logs were kept under shady pine trees near the garden and produced baskets of delicious oyster and shiitake mushrooms. 
  In the garden’s first year (when it was at its smallest), 740 pounds of produce were harvested from 1,100 square feet of growing space. The White House chefs routinely use the harvested food in meals served at the White House, including in official State dinners. In addition, about a third of the total food harvested from the garden is donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, an organization that helps homeless people in the D.C. area. 

To extend the growing season, the garden crew set up low tunnels over the beds using metal hoop frames covered with clear plastic. The first lady says she was surprised and delighted by how well these simple structures worked. Greens continued to grow hardily into winter, boosting each season’s total yield.

  Two of the beds in the White House kitchen garden are dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, who was an avid gardener. The third U.S. president grew strawberries, fig trees and flowers at the White House, as well as many plants and seeds at Monticello, his home near Charlottesville, Va. The present-day Jefferson garden beds contain crop varieties that were some of his favorites, including ‘Tennis Ball’ and ‘Brown Dutch’ lettuce and ‘Green Globe’ artichokes. Here, “first dog” Bo sits behind a plaque providing tribute to Jefferson.

This article is an excerpt from Michelle Obama’s book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America (Crown Publishing, 2012). This beautiful, full-color book shares the complete story of the White House garden, profiles successful community gardens around the country, offers how-to tips for beginning gardeners, and includes many recipes that incorporate fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Proceeds go to the National Park Foundation and will be used for programs promoting gardening, healthy eating and active lifestyles. Proceeds will also support the continued care of the White House kitchen garden. This is Michelle Obama’s first book.