Gardening - Activists Urge Obamas to Install Vegetable Garden at White House

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, January 8, 2009

So you have yet to move into your house in the District and already strangers from afar are telling you what to do with the yard.

That might rankle you somewhat, except the property is at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, the impending occupants are Barack Obama and his family, and his domestic decisions are suddenly everyone's business.

The home vegetable garden, a thing of much toil and simple pleasure, has taken on enormous political and environmental symbolism. Voices in the local-food movement have formed a chorus urging the Obamas to dig up a good chunk of the South Lawn for a garden to feed the first family and local food banks.

If Americans planted wartime victory gardens again, the argument goes, we would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable agricultural practices, feed our families with cheaper, more nutritious food and reduce obesity and disease.

"If we were to have a first family to take this on and lead by example, we would see a ripple effect across the country and across the world," said Roger Doiron, an organic gardener and food activist in Scarborough, Maine, who last year started a campaign to pressure the next president to grow veggies at the White House. He calls his petition drive Eat the View (

It will be interesting to see whether the Obamas respond to the calls. Eleanor Roosevelt doggedly installed a victory garden in 1943, and Woodrow Wilson turned the South Lawn over to grazing sheep during World War I, but most of the landscape changes made by first families -- and there have been many over the years -- were for their own needs, not to play to the gallery.

Theodore Roosevelt reluctantly took down a magnificent array of greenhouses and conservatories to build the West Wing in 1902. Many presidential landscape changes had little to do with horticulture, reflecting instead the recreational interests of families that must live, work, entertain and decompress in a guarded compound.

Obama, a fitness freak, reportedly wants to install a basketball court. Bill Clinton had a jogging track constructed, Gerald Ford installed an outdoor swimming pool and Dwight Eisenhower, the inveterate golfer, a putting green. Jimmy Carter, a farmer, had a treehouse built for daughter Amy, but he also asked for culinary herbs, which continue to be planted among ornamentals. Since the Clinton administration, the executive chef has been harvesting produce from a small vegetable garden on the roof.

Doiron says the White House needs a veggie garden that is large enough to register in the public's imagination. If it were built, he said, the ultimate size and location would have to be worked out by the various parties involved, including the Obamas and the National Park Service, whose team of approximately a dozen gardeners maintains the gardens and grounds.

Writer Michael Pollan has suggested a five-acre fruit and vegetable garden, which isn't so much a kitchen garden for a big house as it is a truck farm.

"There would be a lot of push-back among the American people for that size plot," Doiron said. "That said, I would like to see this ambitious" in scale. He noted that a one-acre garden could feed 40 people through the growing season. He constructed a much smaller 1,000-square-foot garden that provides half the vegetables needed for his family of five "in a much more challenging and chilly climate than Washington, D.C."

Candidate Obama encouraged us to hope, so I hope for a Victorian-style walled kitchen garden at the White House whose enclosure would provide shelter and comfort not just to the produce but to the producers as well.

Washington landscape architect James van Sweden installed such a garden for a couple near Chestertown, Md., after they all toured England looking for the right model. They were most comfortable in one measuring 75 feet by 150 feet, enclosing about a quarter-acre. It was replicated on the Eastern Shore with a 10-foot-high brick wall to keep out deer. It has a Chinese pavilion that holds six chaises, and arbors dripping with grapevines. "It's very American in feeling," van Sweden said.

Such a garden at the White House would be ideal for seasonal and perennial vegetables, herbs, berries and espaliered fruit trees, as well as cut flowers. "It would be marvelous and a very private place to sit," van Sweden said. Outside the walls, I'd add a henhouse, a pen for a few goats (for milk and cheese) and at least four hives of honeybees.

Of course, anything that is expensive to install and maintain will face opposition in an economic slump, never mind that it might serve first families for another century. But another difficulty in integrating a vegetable garden is that the White House environs serve various roles, including as a heliport.

The most decorative gardens are, famously, the Rose Garden and its counterpart across the south facade, the East or First Ladies' Garden. They owe their existence to the last president to take an active role in the landscape, John F. Kennedy. After reading Thomas Jefferson's chronicle of planting at Monticello, the "Garden Book," Kennedy asked his friend Rachel Lambert Mellon to rework the Wilsons' original Rose Garden, which had become overgrown. She turned to landscape architect Perry Wheeler to create a lawn flanked by saucer magnolias and crab apples rising from beds of clipped boxwood hedging, roses and annuals.

The East Garden, completed during the Johnson administration, became a favorite outdoor retreat for the Clintons, according to presidential historian William Seale. "The East Garden is a very pretty and private place, and they used it a lot," he said.

The White House landscape is also an arboretum of historical and commemorative trees, and the layout derives from a plan devised in the 1930s for Franklin Roosevelt by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., forming a vista to the south and using trees to frame the view of the distant Jefferson Memorial.

The garden staff is skillful and dedicated, but the predominant form of ornamental gardening involves patterns of bedding annuals that extend north to Lafayette Park. It has remained unchanged for years: red tulips bounded by grape hyacinths in the spring, to be ripped out and replaced with scarlet sage and dusty miller for the summer. Bedding mums arrive for the fall. It is like a time warp from the 1950s. "If not Victorian," van Sweden said.

How opportune for a discussion about a vegetable garden to extend to other aspects of the White House landscape, now that a young and charismatic president has inspired so many with his promise of change. Other prominent civic landscapes have become forward-looking gardens of more natural character, interesting, ever-changing through the year and speaking to the sustainability of green spaces in urban settings.

Millennium Park in Chicago, the Obamas' home town, is an example of thoughtful, provocative and vital municipal landscaping in the 21st century. A tenth of the park is occupied by the Lurie Garden, a joyful celebration of plants bounded by sculptural hedges and composed by designers with international reputations: landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, plantsman Piet Oudolf and set designer Robert Israel.

Medleys of spring bulbs give way to summer-flowering perennials and prairie grasses, culminating in a wispy fall garden that persists with the tall dried grasses of winter. It is a lovely progression of color and form and texture.

Food for thought.

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