Letter to Michelle Obama: Don't Say We Didn't Warn You About Gardening in D.C.

First lady Michelle Obama planted herbs last week in the White House Kitchen Garden with students from Bancroft Elementary School, which is in the District's Mount Pleasant area.
First lady Michelle Obama planted herbs last week in the White House Kitchen Garden with students from Bancroft Elementary School, which is in the District's Mount Pleasant area. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dear Mrs. Obama,

We in the vegetable-gardening world were thrilled to see you plant the new plot on the South Lawn of the White House. What an inspiration, not just to the grade-schoolers who helped you, but to everyone interested in reviving the idea of growing one's own food. Farmers markets and community-supported agriculture are fine ways to get local produce, but nothing is fresher, more nutritious or better tasting than well-grown veggies raised at home.

There can be a few pitfalls, however, which I'd like to share in the interest of making this a resounding success.

Washington offers a long but challenging climate for vegetable gardening. Take peas, for example. Sow them too early and they will rot in wet clay soil. Sow them too late and they will mature in June when the heat and humidity suppress flowering and pod development. The window for planting them was March 28 between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Missed the boat? Don't worry. You can sow lettuce instead, which will mature quickly as the soil warms and won't bolt, turn bitter and go to seed for ages, until at least the week after next.

In time, the lettuce will be plagued by an insect called the leafhopper. It is a wary thing, difficult to squish. Did you ever see the movie "Goldfinger," when James Bond and the villain Oddjob were about to go mano a mano at Fort Knox, circling each other in the gold vault? That's the same sort of choreography as with a leafhopper. And just as you get close to it, it doesn't whip out a bowler hat with a razor-sharp brim; it just hops away. Hence the name.

I forgot to mention slugs, which are a particular problem during wet springs. Poisons are available but nasty, and a threat to the girls' new puppy, Bo. One option is to go out late at night with a flashlight and water pistol filled with a bleach solution, and give them a squirt. Do alert the Secret Service first. Some gardeners recommend hand-picking slugs, but I don't. The slime, well, it's unspeakable and a devil to wash off. Hens do a good job of eating the slugs, but they'll scratch up everything else. And they'll draw foxes and hawks. Stick to the water pistol.

In the spring, it is not unusual to check the garden in the morning and find all your beloved seedlings reduced to stalks. That probably not the work of bunny rabbits but a plump, brown, soil-dwelling caterpillar called a cutworm. These minor setbacks are the stuff of vegetable gardening. Sow again and place a collar of some sort around the emerging seedlings. You could use the cardboard cores of toilet paper rolls, but the garden is just visible from E Street NW, where tourists from around the world take lots of pictures. Try tomato paste cans instead.

And speaking of tomatoes, you must save room for America's favorite vegetable, er, fruit . . . er, berry. Remind the Marine One pilots to stay clear of the vegetable garden, because once a vine is beaten down, it's tough to reattach it to its stake or cages.

There are just one or two things to fret about when it comes to the willing and easy tomato.

In late June, you will notice the lower leaves turning yellow, developing spots and falling off. This is a disease called early blight, which if unchecked will seriously weaken a plant. If you coddle the vine and it survives till August, the lower leaves may still turn yellow and develop spots. This is called late blight.

If the tomato survives early and late blight, the fruit may still blacken at the base, rendering it inedible. The condition, in the trade, is known as blossom end rot and is caused by a lack of calcium and uneven watering.

While the vigilant gardener is searching for rotten fruit, she is also on the lookout for missing foliage and dark droppings. This is the work of a caterpillar called the tomato hornworm. The hornworm is about the size of a hamster but rendered invisible by green skin the same shade as the vine. It can be picked off if you have good eyes and a better grip.

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