For Vilsack, the Proof Is in the Planting

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In another sign that the Department of Agriculture is embracing sustainable food, the agency today will unveil expanded plans for a People's Garden that will include the entire six-acre grounds of the Whitten Building, the department's neoclassic marble headquarters on the Mall.

The plans, to be announced at the agency's Earth Day celebrations, include a 1,300-square-foot organic vegetable garden -- slightly larger than the one at the White House -- as well as ornamental flower gardens and bioswales, or mini-wetlands designed to reduce pollution and surface water runoff. The building grounds now are landscaped with grass, flower borders and trees planted to honor a person or mark an event.

Secretary Tom Vilsack, an avid runner, came up with the idea for the garden during one of his daily runs around the Mall. He noticed tourists stopping to look at the trees and their dedication plaques. A thriving garden, he thought, would be a better way to communicate the agency's mission of sustainability and in particular the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables, a cornerstone of the agency's push to improve school nutrition and reduce childhood obesity.

Initial plans were announced at a groundbreaking in February on Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and referred to it as the People's Department, hence the name People's Garden.

Originally, Vilsack, 58, envisioned a vegetable garden only half the size and a goal to have at least some type of garden -- even if just a window box -- at every USDA facility. But in an interview last week at his office, which overlooks the scrubby lawn, Vilsack said the positive public response to the idea and a March meeting with horticulture and garden groups persuaded him to broaden the plan. The garden now will encompass all of the agency's property on the Mall, and the department will work with organizations across the country to encourage individuals, schools and communities to establish gardens.

"If we can get people to focus on fruits and vegetables and more healthy foods, we'll be better in terms of our health-care situation," Vilsack said. Exposing visitors to model ecosystems, such as the bioswales, is also "important as we transition to a discussion about climate change and green jobs and all the issues involved in the environment."

The organic vegetable garden will feature a rotation of crops, beginning with cool-weather plants such as field peas, lettuce, spinach and kale. As summer approaches, tomatoes, peppers, squash and herbs, among other things, will be planted. [People's Garden Concept Plan Drawing (PDF)]

There will also be a three sisters garden, a traditional Native American planting method in which corn, pole beans and squash are grown together. The beans fix nitrogen, a fertilizer, in the soil and use the cornstalks as natural poles to climb. Squash has big leaves that shade the soil, keeping it moist and cutting out light that would allow weeds to grow. The chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux of South Dakota will participate in a planting ceremony and exchange seeds with USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan at the Earth Day event.

All of the vegetables produced will be donated to a local food bank. But the garden's primary role is to be an educational tool. Gardeners will work toward winning it organic certification; signs and possibly a video at the USDA visitors' center will explain the process and benefits of organic agriculture. The vegetables will be grown in three ways: in the ground (the soil has been tested several times and contains no chemical residues), in raised beds and in containers. The goal is to illustrate the many ways to grow food, dispelling the notion that gardeners need large plots of land.

The emphasis on gardening might surprise some sustainable-agriculture advocates who initially greeted Vilsack's appointment with skepticism. A former governor of Iowa, Vilsack had close ties to conventional farmers and ranchers and had supported biotechnology and ethanol. But in his first 91 days, the secretary has made concerted efforts to win food advocates' trust. He has met with progressive farm groups and food policy organizations and watched a screening of "Food Inc.," a searing indictment of the industrial food system, with authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, two leaders of the sustainable-food movement. One of Vilsack's standard lines is, "If I had to summarize the vision I have for this department in one word, it would be 'sustainable.' "

The new garden has provided another chance to include new voices, Vilsack said. In March, he convened a one-day meeting in Washington at which 47 gardening and horticulture organizations, including the Rodale Institute, Seed Savers and the American Community Gardeners Association, offered feedback on the project and brainstormed ways to spread the message to schools, churches and communities.

"I kept having to pinch myself in this meeting," said Rose Hayden-Smith, a historian and food systems educator at the University of California. "We're not the kind of people who have been invited to Washington, D.C., before. We're the guerrilla gardeners, the pollinator people, the seed savers. It wasn't our usual cast of characters. People were grinning from ear to ear."

This is not the first time the federal government has encouraged Americans to get out into their gardens. During World War I, the Department of the Interior launched a Liberty Garden program, and the Federal Bureau of Education established the United States School Garden Army, an unprecedented governmental effort to make agricultural education a formal part of the public school curriculum.

Days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard convened a National War Garden Commission to promote home and community gardens, later renamed victory gardens. By 1943, the year Eleanor Roosevelt planted her garden at the White House, 40 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States were produced in victory gardens.

Over the past 50 years, the USDA has continued to support gardening through, for example, the master gardener program. But those efforts have been distinctly low-profile.

Vilsack said the struggling economy, concerns about climate change and rising obesity rates mean the time is right for that to change. But it's also clear that Vilsack's exposure to sustainable-food advocates and ideas has turned him into a bit of a foodie himself. "I don't care what anybody says: Nothing is better than a tomato you grow," he said. "There's something about it that's different than a tomato you can buy. It's a great thing."

The People's Garden at the Whitten Building will be tended by workers from Melwood, an Upper Marlboro-based nonprofit organization that employs developmentally disabled adults. But as at the new White House garden, the department's staff will be encouraged and permitted to help.

Will the secretary himself pitch in? "You know, I'm happy to work in the garden. But someone will have to tell me what to do," he said. "If someone tells me, 'This is a weed, you've got to pull it,' I'll pull it."

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