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American garden revolution: Obama's plot & recession gardens

When Michelle Obama donned her Jimmy Choo boots to break ground for organic veggies on the White House South Lawn, she knew it was about more than just providing food for her family.

“We want to use it as a point of education”- she explained to Oprah- “to talk about health and how delicious it is to eat fresh food, and how you can take that food and make it part of a healthy diet. You know, the tomato that’s from your garden tastes very different from one that isn’t. And peas—what is it like to eat peas in season?”

Michelle Obama understands that most of us Americans are out of touch with basic food groups. She admits she used to rely too heavily on pizza and sandwiches for her kids until her daughters began to gain weight and their pediatrician warned her she needed to focus on their nutrition.

“So many foods aren’t real anymore,” she told Oprah. So for the past couple years, the Obamas have tried to not eat “junk” and instead they read labels and eat seasonal- and local- fruits and vegetables. And now they will have an organic garden with 55 types of produce to choose from.

Inspiring a nation to sew their backyards

This year, 37% of Americans plan to grow food in their backyards- according to the National Gardening Association survey- that’s up nearly 20% from last year, and with the Obamas’ very kitchen garden as a national model that number could even go higher. If history is any indication what the White House does can make a difference in backyards across the country.

When Eleanor Roosevelt planted her “victory garden” on the White House lawn in 1943 (over objections of the Agriculture Department), she helped inspire millions of Americans to follow suit. By the end of the war, 40% of the country’s food was being grown in community gardens and backyards.

Despite the simplicity of a garden, no First Lady has planted veggies on the first lawn since Eleanor. And this is despite pressure from some of the country’s most influential foodies.

Even Jimmy Carter, with his background in farming, rejected encouragement to grow a presidential garden (except for a few herbs).

Alice Waters, a local food movement pioneer and creator of “California Cuisine”, began pressuring the Clinton’s back in the nineties to grow their own. One of her letters to them, back in 1995, pleaded: “Help us nourish our children by bringing them back to the table, where we can pass on our most humane values. Help us create a demand for sustainable agriculture, for it is at the core of sustaining everyone’s life.”

The Clintons planted some container plants on the roof, but they never make any real moves toward growing a more visible example for the country.

After Barack Obama’s election, Waters tried her plea again with yet another letter. “If you plant it, it will be a victory garden in the truest sense: a demonstration to the world that your presidency is dedicated to the good stewardship of the land.”

Of course, this time the Obamas bit and now there’s a bit less lawn and a lot more fruit and vegetables growing on the White House grounds, all within view of anyone walking by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

How to garden like the Obamas

The Obamas haven’t even harvested anything yet, but new gardeners are already being offered tips to follow the First Family’s lead. Articles like “Kitchen Garden Tips: Be Like Michelle Obama!” and “Eat Like Obama: Plant Your Own Version of the White House Garden” offer some basics for beginners like:

  • Learn what grows well in your area by asking at your local nursery, farmer’s market or local gardening groups.
  • Plant things that you can build a meal around, like squash, potatoes, and beans.
  • Consider growing salad greens, especially organic, to save money quickly. They can be harvested in about a month and keep growing after being picked.
  • If it’s cold where you live, begin your plants indoors for an earlier start.
  • Consider composting to both get rid of organic waste and to provide great soil for your plants.

“Recession gardens”

When breaking ground on the new national symbol, Mrs. Obama was careful to point out for the schoolkids that the garden was “real inexpensive” and that the $200 they were spending- on seeds, mulch, good bugs and other materials- would yield “a ton of stuff”.

“We can produce enough fruits and vegetables to feed us for years and years to come, for just a couple of hundred dollars,” she said.

And during these economic hard times, it seems more Americans are waking up to how growing their own can cut back on their food bills. Thirteen million more families plan to plant a garden this year than last year and according to the National Gardening Association survey, 58% of the nation’s gardeners say they’re doing it to save money.

The country’s largest seed and garden supply store, W. Atlee Burpee & Co., report a 25-30% rise in vegetable seed and plant sales this spring compared with 2008. CEO George Ball finds this shocking. “I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it — even remotely like it”.

The savings for the average family are substantial, according to a Burpee report released last year. They estimate a 25-to-1 return on the money invested in gardening materials and seeds. So for a family that spends $200 like the Obama’s, they should save $5,000 in annual grocery bills.

A new era of practicality

Craig Humphries of Scott’s Miracle Grow- sponsor of the NGA survey- thinks this growth in gardening is not a passing trend, but the result of a new era. “I call it the new practicality. People are staying home more and they’re looking for other activities beyond watching TV and surfing the Internet. They’re emulating simpler times in an uncertain world.”

Saving money isn’t the only motivation for the new excitement around veggie gardens. The number one reported reason for planting your own was that eating homegrown food tastes better and nearly half of those surveyed reported growing their own for safety reasons.

“We’ve had three major scares of salmonella recently,” explained Alisa Keimel, of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, to the National newspaper, “The best way to make sure you’re getting safe food is to know what you’re growing.”

The Obama’s garden offends chemical firms

The Obamas- and their gardening staff- won’t be using any pesticides to grow their food. Instead, ladybugs and praying mantises will be unleashed to control harmful bugs and the garden will be fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. This is a bit to earthy for the country’s agribusiness lobby.

Just a few days after Michelle Obama broke ground on the family’s all organic garden, she received a letter from the Mid-America CropLife Association (MACA)- which represents pesticide and fertilizer companies- asking her to consider using “crop protection products”.

The letter explained to the first lady: “Today, an average farmer produces enough food to feed 144 Americans who are living longer lives than many of their ancestors. Technology in agriculture has allowed for the development of much of what we know and use in our lives today.”

While the letter avoided becoming an attack on organics, the UK’s Sunday Times reports that the MACA executive director Bonnie McCarvel was much more blunt in an email to the groups’ members and supporters. “The letter “respectfully” encourages Mrs Obama to recognise the role played by conventional agriculture in feeding America’s growing population and is carefully worded not to be provocative. “While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made (us) shudder.”

Supporters of organics have fought back posting a petition online asking the MACA to stop its “propaganda about pesticides“. Over 100,000 people have signed the document in support of Mrs. Obama’s right to plant without chemicals. “Stop asserting that the First Lady is somehow disserving our nation’s citizens by encouraging them to grow their own food locally, sustainably and without your industry’s chemicals.”

A wakeup call for America’s governors

The Obama’s garden has not only raised the attention of the pesticide industry, but politicians nationwide are being called upon to take similar action. Just days after Mrs Obama dug into the White House lawn, California’s first lady Maria Shriver announced her plans to turn a capital park into a garden with fruits, vegetables and other edible plants.

“This new garden will bring awareness to children, students and visitors about the important role of food, where it comes from, nutritional value, how it is grown and harvested and ultimately how it reaches the tables of those who need it most,” Shriver explained about her project which is being backed by Alice Waters.

Inspired by the efforts of the gardening first ladies, an online action group GreentheGrounds.org is calling on governors nationwide to take things a step further and make their capital grounds more sustainable. Their online petition calls for changes like the following:

  • Nontoxic lawn care.
  • Less lawn.
  • Water conservation through drought-tolerant plants and smart watering techniques.
  • Managing stormwater.
  • Choosing pest-resistant plants like no-spray roses.
  • Recycling yard waste through composting and chipping.
  • Sustaining wildlife by providing “habitat and sustenance for polllinators and other essential wildlife”.

Growing food anywhere you can

It remains to be seen how far politicians are willing to turn their gardens “green”, but it’s obvious the average American is ready to plant their backyards, no matter how big a space they have.

While the Obamas have 1100 square feet to grow their food, the size of the average American veggie garden is shrinking as more urbanites and suburbanites with small spaces begin to plant their own food. The NGA reports that in 2008 57% of US home and community gardens were 9.3 square meters (100 square feet) or smaller.

Small space, and container, gardening is growing in popularity. According to Container Gardening Associated, Americans are now spending more than $1.3 billion a year on container gardening.

Alternatively, for those who want to start gardening and don’t have the space, Mrs. Obama suggests community gardens where neighbors can work on communal plots together.

While not everyone is ready, nor has the time, to begin gardening, the first lady suggests taking a small step by looking at what you’re eating. “You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

For more:

  • Our DIY guide to planting your own small space garden.
  • Kitchen Gardeners International: provides a structure, both virtual and real, for kitchen gardeners worldwide.
  • The top 10 vegetables to grow at home, in order: tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, beans, carrots, summer squash, onions, hot peppers, lettuce, peas. And for the more adventuresome, tier 2: sweet corn, radishes, potatoes, salad greens, pumpkins, watermelons, spinach, broccoli, melons and cabbage.