The Washington Post

Where grass roots are really unhappy: White House garden goes untended amid shutdown

The White House garden, as seen from outside the fence, on Tuesday. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

Oh, Mrs. Obama, how does your garden grow?

During the government shutdown, apparently wildly.

The White House Kitchen Garden, planted with great fanfare by the first lady and the National Park Service in April 2009, is now gangly and weedy.

The garden’s unruly state was first reported by Eddie Gehman Kohan, who blogs about White House food policy and has posted day-by-day updates of the garden during the shutdown. Wild mushrooms have begun to grow, she wrote. Weeds have sprouted. Sweet potatoes are unpicked.

It is not the usual state of the picture-perfect garden, which had its own spread in Better Homes and Gardens two years ago.

“National Park Service employees are only watering the kitchen garden as needed,” Jennifer Mummart, a spokeswoman for the park service’s National Capital Region said in an e-mail. “And, yes, this is consistent with how we are caring for other managed landscapes during the shutdown.” (Apparently, watering the garden is “essential,” otherwise the plants would die. Weeding is not.)

The partial government shutdown has also effectively shut down Michelle Obama’s public schedule. Glimpses of the first lady outside the White House have been rare in the past 15 days. Her team, cut to the bone along with the rest of the White House staff, has announced no events.

“We are hopeful the shutdown can come to an end soon so that we can be back up and running and executing the first lady’s various activities,” a White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Tuesday.

In bits and pieces, a picture of how Obama has spent her time during the shutdown has emerged. In a “West Wing Week” video produced by White House videographers, the first lady is shown walking through the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Day 9 of the shutdown.

“Thanks for looking out for our folks,” she said as she shook hands with one worker after another, all on duty despite the furlough.

On Day 11, the White House released a photo of the president, first lady and their older daughter, Malia, in the Oval Office with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl turned activist. On Day 15, the first lady joined the president and vice president at the Medal of Honor ceremony for William Swenson, a former active-duty Army captain.

Otherwise, Obama has been out of the public eye, as have her projects.

Among the White House staffers furloughed is Sam Kass, the executive director of the first lady’s Let’s Move initiative. He canceled a speech about the importance of healthful eating because of the shutdown.

On the residential side, the team of ushers, butlers, housekeepers, groundskeepers, curators, chefs and maintenance staff who care for the 132-room mansion is down from 90 to 15.

If Richard Norton Smith could, the historian would force members of Congress and some of the political White House staff to watch the scene in the Lerner and Bernstein musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” in which Abigail Adams says: “Care for this house, it’s the hope of us all.”

“That says it all,” said Smith. “It’s a romantic view, but that’s fine. We have enough cynicism.”

The current first lady could be sending a message of her own, said Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University.

“She certainly doesn’t want to be out and about engaging in anything that could be interpreted as a frivolous activity,” Jellison said. “She would want to send a message that the first family recognizes that this is a crisis period and are taking it seriously.” Indeed, Obama canceled a planned trip to California last weekend to raise money for the Democratic Party.

As for the White House’s weedy garden, it might be a blessing in disguise, said the professor.

“It now maybe looks more like a lot of other people’s gardens,” Jellison said. “If the purpose is to try to get Americans to grow their own healthy food, maybe a garden that doesn’t look pristine is not such a bad thing.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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