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

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.

The only other thing you might encounter with tomatoes at this latitude is fruit scorching in the intense sunlight. Sunscald, as it is called, is easily countered by strapping umbrellas to reinforced iron bars plunged on the northwest side of the vine. To avoid damage to the umbrellas, put them down when you see a summer storm racing up the Potomac.

Speaking of that majestic river, which recalls the world of Native Americans, why not try that ingenious combination of plantings championed by the indigenous peoples known as the three sisters? Corn stalks rise through a living mulch of squash, while pole beans lean on the corn stalks. It's a gardener's trifecta, and a cook's, too.

When the squash begins to spread, keep an eye on the lower leaves for sudden wilting. This is caused by a worm, the squash vine borer, which hatches within the vine near its base. Sometimes you can save the vine from certain death by taking a razor blade and slicing lengthwise along the stem to expose and kill the worm before you bury the stalk in soil to reroot. Survival is a long shot, but what else are you gonna do?

The beans should be all right, as long as you can dash outside at the first sign of Japanese beetles and pick off the scouts before the rest of the army arrives. In August, the ripening of the corn is always a moment of pride and, perhaps, a little trepidation. It helps to think of this moment as akin to a fairy tale, namely "Jack and the Beanstalk." The bean is the beanstalk; the ear of corn is the hen that lays golden eggs. And Jack? A brown rat.

But enough of this rodent talk; let's think of summer's bounty. What can be cooler or more refreshing than a freshly picked cucumber? As long as you can keep the cucumber beetle at bay, you won't have to worry about deathly bacterial wilt at all. Fungal wilt, maybe, but not bacterial wilt.

Peppers are generally easy and, while somewhat prone to the same diseases as tomatoes, pest-free. If they do get a disease called phytophthora, the peppers are doomed -- but at least Malia and Sasha will blow everyone away at the next spelling bee.

I do hope you try potatoes. They are easily started from little seed tubers. Remember to harvest the new potatoes when the plants are blooming. There is very little to worry about, in terms of pests and disease. Well, if you discount the Colorado potato beetle, scab and the potato blight.

You know what, Mrs. Obama? There's a Whole Foods Market about eight blocks north of the White House. I'll e-mail the directions.

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