Michelle Obama’s American Grown, The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe kitchen garden established by Michelle Obama on the South Lawn of the White House is the first full scale vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House since Teddy Roosevelt served as president in 1902 (when the United States was still a nation of farmers).  Mrs. Obama’s tells the story of how, with hardly any gardening experience, she created a source of fresh, healthy food for the White House kitchen, and even more important, how the White House garden became a learning garden for children, who had never seen a plant sprout or enjoyed the magic of picking and tasting a vegetable directly from a garden.  American Grown, The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America (Crown Publishers, a Division of Random House, Inc., New York, New York 2012) is a beautifully designed book, full of wonderful photographs (many by photographer Quentin Bacon), which provides a lively history about the White House gardens and landscape, much insight on how to grow your own food, and a positive plan for addressing our nation’s obesity epidemic.  Mrs. Obama’s heartfelt story proves that there is a way for all Americans, including the First Family, to be a part of a community producing and enjoying good food, knowing where it came from and how it was grown.

Michelle Obama writes in a very personal and revelatory voice.  She discloses her food “roots” on the South Side of Chicago, noting her mother’s memory of a vegetable truck which came around the neighborhood selling produce “straight from the farm,” and her mother’s memory of the small family plot in a victory garden during World War II.   For Mrs. Obama, supermarket produce of iceberg lettuce salads, cooked broccoli, peas, carrots and zucchini was part of her diet, with dessert a treat for Sundays, and lunches consisting of sandwiches made with leftovers from “last night’s dinner.”  Her family hardly ever ate out and meals were eaten together as a family.  Only a handful of times did she have take-out fast food.  Mrs. Obama tells how the first time she and her brother had a take-out hamburger and fries, her grandmother took the bag of fast food back to the kitchen, arranged the burgers and fries on plates, opened up a can of peas and “promptly served us two scoops each.”

The First Lady reveals that it was very early in the presidential primary season when she had the idea to plant a vegetable garden at the White House  after thinking a “great deal about how the food my family ate affected our health” in response to advice of her family’s pediatrician.  She is proud that “pretty much every night at 6:30 PM,” the president, Mrs. Obama and their daughters eat together as a family, and equally proud that the White House vegetable garden has become a remarkable source of food for the White House kitchen.  Not since Eleanor Roosevelt’s small victory garden during World War II, which was mostly symbolic, has food been grown on the White House lawn, although the Carters supported an herb garden for the White House chefs, and pots of tomatoes were grown by White House gardeners for the Clintons and the Bushes.  In the 19th century, Andrew Jackson planted trees and flowering bulbs, and early in the 20th, First Lady Ellen Wilson planted the rose garden.

Mrs. Obama’s White House kitchen garden in 2009 (the first year) was 1,100 square feet in size but expanded to 1,500 square feet in 2010.  In 2011, raised beds were installed to protect the soil from erosion and to make it easier to care for the crops.  The 34 separate raised beds were angled, shaped and spaced for children or adults to fit between.  Because more of the nutrient rich compost was confined to the boxed beds, the White House garden became richer and more productive.

The garden in 2011 had plantings of broccoli, peas, kale, pak choi (also called bok choi), cauliflower, swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, collards, arugula, cabbage, kohlrabi, mint, beets, radish, turnips, endives, chervil, garlic, minutina greens as well as a bed of perennial herbs and a separate small bed of mint.  Plantings of fruit included three small beds of rhubarb (actually a vegetable but most often used in food as a fruit), as well as beds of raspberries and blueberries (enjoyed by the birds, but not humans).  In the spring of 2011, well-watered mushroom logs were  placed in a shady spot under pine trees resulting in a bumper crop of oyster and shitake mushrooms in late spring.  The  mushroom logs will produce a good source of protein in spring and fall for three to five years.

Washington, DC is a tough place for a vegetable garden in the heat of the summer, and the First Lady recounts the total loss of tomatoes and flattened corn during the heavy rains and flooding during the summer of 2011.  However, the planting of squash, corn, and beans, as Three Sisters, in the traditional way of the Iroquois people, survived the ravages of the 2011 summer heat and rain.  Of special interest is the productivity of the White House garden in the winter, which utilizes hoop houses (also known as low tunnels):  simple metal frames that stand about two feet off the ground and are covered by a clear plastic tarp.  The winter harvests of spinach, kale, chard, mustard greens, collards, bok choi and broccoli are unusually sweet.  Mrs. Obama explains that since sugars don’t freeze, plants produce a lot of sugars to protect themselves from the cold.  It is common knowledge that brussel sprouts sweeten up with the cold, but the First Lady’s simple explanation was a lightbulb moment.

American Grown provides the basics on how to start a garden with the fundamentals emphasized.  The soil is critical.  In simple but clear terms, Obama explains the nature of “good soil” which makes for a great garden.  (Her bibliography references organic gardener Elizabeth Stell’s Secrets to Great Soil: A Grower’s Guide to Composting, Mulching, and Creating Healthy, Fertile Soil for Your Garden and Lawn [Storey, North Adams, MA, 1998].)  Soil consists of sand, clay and silt, and for a rich loamy mix for a successful garden, equal parts of sand, clay and silt is best.  Testing the soil of the south lawn of the White House had good results, and earthworms (to break up soil, allow water to reach roots of plants, and create new soil from their castings) were plentiful.  All that was needed was good compost for mulching, 6-8 hours of direct sun, and one inch of water each week.

The first year, the garden area was tilled with a rototiller, but in subsequent years only shovels and digging forks. gentler on the soil, were used.  Mulch, which discourages weeds, helps hold in moisture, and provides some defense to the power of heavy rainfall, also makes hoeing once a week to keep out weeds an easier task.  The importance of rotating crops (in future years) to make them less susceptible to existing pests, and preparing the garden for winter by pulling out everything, adding a layer of compost, and seeding with rye grass or winter wheat to prevent the soil from compacting in the winter (from rain and snow if left bare) are duly noted.

Special tips are provided to make a garden appealing and fun for children.  The easiest vegetables to grow are radishes, beets, tomatoes, and onions.  But planting what you like to eat is vital, and the basics of lettuce, cucumbers and squash (in addition to tomatoes) are appealing.  Harvesting and tasting, or eating as you pick, appeals to children so pea pods, berries and cherry tomatoes are suggested.  Some very specific advice is given for a successful children’s garden: (1) highlight smell with groupings of herbs like basil and lemon verbena, (2) plant some dramatic flowers like sunflowers, (3) make assessable, clearly designed paths, (4) start small, manageable plots and mark children’s individual beds and plants, and (5) lay out seeds and seedlings where they will be planted so children can focus on setting them in prepared ground.

The First Lady earns credibility for her honesty in describing some of the failures in the White House garden: (1) beautiful, but no taste cantaloupes, (2) blackberry bushes that took too much space for too few pieces of fruit, (3) blueberries eaten by the birds even when netting was used, and (4) an extraordinary lack of luck in growing pumpkins.  In 2009, the first year of the garden, vines but no pumpkins.  In 2010, pumpkin seeds planted sooner, but not soon enough, and even taking care to pollinate pumpkin blossoms by hand,  only one orange pumpkin and four semi-orange pumpkins harvested.  In 2011, pumpkin seeds were planted even earlier, but “came up empty.”  These failures give real meaning to Mrs. Obama’s “guiding principle” for the White House garden which comes from Thomas Jefferson:  “The failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest, a continued one throughout the year.”

The success of the White House garden’s bee hive clearly repaired the small failures noted above.  The White House garden has become the home to one bee colony of  70,000 bees, and the honey produced (light clover and basswood flavor, with a hint of citrus) has been enjoyed by many.  In the first year 140 pounds of honey was harvested; in 2010, 183 pounds; and in 2011, 225 pounds.  Bottled honey has been prized as gifts for visiting dignitaries and heads of state.  Mrs. Obama’s description of the life of a bee colony and how honey is produced should be developed into a children’s story: her telling is so clear and inspirational.  Who knew a honey bee (with wings beating more than 11,000 times per minute giving off the distinctive buzz) visits 50 to 100 flowers to fill its honey stomach, and that back at the hive, worker bees chew the nectar for about a half hour and deposit it throughout the honeycomb?  Who knew each bee produces only 1/12 of a tablespoon of honey in its lifetime, which spans a mere 6 weeks?  With the First Lady’s prose and an illustrator’s art, a classic children’s book is a sure result.  Moreover, Mrs. Obama’s tender story about a lone apple tree that finally produced apples after 25 years, when the bee hive was installed and the bees pollinated its flowers, is perfect for a second children’s book! The tree produced “baskets of apples the size of small grapefruits- apples that were crisp and juicy and really, really good.”   Her story becomes even more meaningful when she tells how during the winter of 2009-2010 following the one fruitful season, the tree was crushed by two massive, back-to-back snow storm.  However, with the planting of a replacement apple tree, hope stays alive for another flowering and fruitful apple tree on the south lawn of the White House a few years down the road.

An added bonus of reading American Grown are the informative tips about the storage of food grown in the garden, and some wonderful recipes from the White House kitchen.  The White House Chef Chris Comerford provides helpful advice: (1) remove green tops of radishes before storing because tops siphon moisture and nutrients from radishes which should be wrapped in a moist towel and stored in a plastic container in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to a week; (2) refrigerate corn immediately  and eat within one or two days of picking; (3) ripe eggplants have skin that will spring back from a gentle press of the thumb and can ripen on a counter until slightly wrinkly; (4) keep carrots away from apples, pears and potatoes, which can cause them to become bitter; (5) unwashed kale should be refrigerated in a plastic bag, removing as much of the air as possible and if not consumed within 5 days will become more bitter, (6) lightly dry unwashed spinach and refrigerate in a sealed plastic bag for up to 3-4 days; and (7) refrigeration harms the taste of sweet potatoes which should be stored in the dark at about 55-60 degrees.

Recipes include  a rhubarb strawberry pie which is very appealing for its light touch with sweetener, only calling for 1/2 cup of honey and 1/2 cup of raw sugar.  The First Lady reveals that President Obama “loves pie” and strawberries can be replaced by blackberrie, apples, peaches or nectarines, which all go well with tart rhubarb.  A recipe for green beans with almonds is sure to be used in my kitchen this summer, with its appealing added ingredients of shallots, parsley, sweet paprika and butter (olive oil can’t be used, all the time).  A White House Garden Cookbook (Red Rock Press, New York, New York, 2010) by Clara Silverstein, the author of The Boston Chef’s Table, is a complementary source for healthy and very appealing recipes (and also includes recipes from community gardens across the United States).

Mrs. Obama book shines the spotlight brightly on the obesity epidemic in the United States noting the terrible facts; 1 in 3 American children are overweight or obese, high schoolers on blood pressure medications and suffering type 2 diabetes with only 15% of high schoolers getting the recommended 1 hour of physical activity a day.  She views the problem as  one of magnitude and consequence, but “eminently solvable” with a “move more, eat better food” remedy.  Launching Let’s Move in 2010, Mrs. Obama has helped to make information widely available on physical activity and healthy eating.  Spin off programs include Chefs Move! to Schools which has helped to encourage chefs to partner with schools; My Plate/Mi Plato which offers tips on how to achieve a healthy balance of foods on your plate; Salad Bars 2 Schools program to put 6,000 salad bars in schools, Farm to School, a praiseworthy, non-profit organization that connects K-12 schools with regional or local farms to help schools serve healthy meals using locally produced foods.

The ease with which a spirit of community has grown up alongside the White House kitchen garden is inspirational and somewhat surprising in its intensity and extraordinary diversity.  From the start, Mrs. Obama involved children, with a group of 23 fifth-graders from the Bancroft Elementary School, a public school in Washington, DC, helping to plant lettuce, peas, spinach, broccoli, kale and collard greens on the very first planting day on April 9, 2009.  From that day onward, school children from the Bancroft school have remained an integral part of the community involved directly in the White House garden.  Besides the lessons learned about the miracle of life from seeds sprouting, the students experienced the fruits and satisfaction of hard, physical work.  The First Lady’s kitchen garden is proof that gardening and growing your own food unites people from school children in an inner city public school to royalty like Prince Charles, whose Duchy Home Farm, has planted seeds and plants from the White House Kitchen Garden.  The Prince’s speech, On the Future of Food (Rodale, Inc., New York, New York 2012), which in the published version of his speech made in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2011 has a foreword by Wendell Berry, forcefully addresses how “creating sustainable food systems will become paramount in the future because of the enormous challenges now facing food production.”  From school children to White House chefs (Cristeta Pasia Commerford, Sam Kass, Bill Yosses),  National Park Service staff, and White House staffers (who compete to volunteer their time mornings before work), people from different backgrounds, ages and walks of life have been connected in a very special “community garden” which has become an admirable part of the solution of creating sustainable food systems, in Prince Charles’s words.

The First Lady views the White House kitchen garden as one of the 18,000 community gardens in the United States and Canada, and she includes descriptions of many inspirational ones including (1) Houston’s City Gardens, a garden in downtown Houston with 34 planting containers which has created a community of gardeners among office workers in an urban tower; (2) Readington Community Garden on the edge of New Jersey suburban sprawl where 1/3 of an acre has made the miracle of nature part of suburban life; (3) P-Patch in Seattle, the largest municipal community gardening program in the United States with 4700 gardeners working 23 acres, and which shares its bounty by contributing 21,000 pounds of fresh produce to Seattle food banks; (4) Rainbow Beach Park gardens in Chicago, the oldest community garden in Chicago, with 40 productive individual plots, many cultivated by the same gardener for decades;  (5) the remarkable Gardens of Service of Winston Salem, N.C., with gardens for recovering addicts and physically and emotionally challenged children, and the Betty & Jim Homes Food Bank Garden, with 20-30 core gardeners primarily from Centenary United Methodist Church, which donates its bounty to the 2nd Harvest Food Bank; (6) the New Roots Community Farm of San Diego, with immigrants from around the world including Uganda, Kenya, Vietnam, Mexico, and Guatemala, who harvest thousands of pounds of produce to be sold at local farmers markets and several local restaurants; (7) the Camden Community Gardening Program, begun in 1985, with its 116 community gardens, bringing hope and nature’s beauty to the second most dangerous city in America, and according to a University of Pennsylvania study led by City & Regional Planning Professor Domenic Vitiello, a noteworthy 10% of Camden’s population gets some of their produce from this program; (8) school gardens across America which provide many children with their only chance to learn about where their food actually comes from; (9) MA’O Organic Farms in Oahu, which connects young people who grow 35 different fruits and vegetables on 24 acres with Hawaiian traditions  of farming and native plantings and for their work receive a monthly stipend and a tuition waiver at a local college; and (10) Growing Power headquartered in Milwaukee which has cultivated 20 farms and 70 programs, including 16 regional training centers across the United States, and trains more than 1000 farmers each year, and in the insightful words of its founder, Will Allen,  “we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.”  Readers inspired by these examples should connect up with the American Community Gardening Association, whose mission is to build communities by increasing and enhancing community gardening and greening across the United States and Canada, and since 1979 has offered support for community gardening and greening “by coaching fledgling groups and promoting networks and information sharing on all levels.”

Michael Pollan’s must-read Food Rules includes two rules that deserve special mention here.   His Rule 81, “Plant a Vegetable Garden if You Have the Space, a Window Box if You Don’t” reverberates with the establishment of the successful vegetable garden at the White House.  Pollan’s explanation for this rule is worth pondering:
“What does growing some of your own food have to do with repairing your relationship to food and eating? Everything.  To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for your sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be fast, cheap and easy; that food is a product of industry, not nature; that food is fuel rather than a form of communion with other people, and also with other species- with nature.  On a more practical level, you will eat what your garden produces, which will be the freshest, most nutritious produce obtainable . . . .”

Closely related to Pollan’s Rule 81 is his Rule 12, “Get Out of the Supermarket Whenever You Can,” and Pollan’s explanation for this rule is incisive:
“You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmers’ market.  You also won’t find any elaborately processed food products, any packages with long lists of unpronounceable ingredients or dubious health claims, anything microwaveable, or perhaps best of all, any old food from far away.”
And Mrs. Obama deserves additional praise for bringing a farmers market to the neighborhood near the White House.  She succeeded, after “a lot of searching and many conversations with our local government,” and the Vermont Avenue Farmers Market opened on a quiet block right off Lafayette Park near the White House in 2009, early in President Obama’s first term.

Thomas Jefferson at his Monticello grew 330 varieties of vegetable and herbs, many extinct today.  Michelle Obama may be  a far less accomplished gardener than Jefferson, but she deserves enormous praise for what she has achieved by cultivating a garden and growing a food community at the White House.  American Grown is a book to be treasured.

[Frank W. Barrie, August 12, 2013]





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