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Flash in the Pan

The plots thicken


When Michelle Obama broke ground for her 1,100-square-foot garden on the White House lawn, the shockwaves were felt around the world. On her recent trip overseas, most of the press focused on the First Lady’s fashion statements. World leaders, she said upon her return, wanted to discuss the statement her garden was making.

“Every single person from Prince Charles on down, they were excited we were planting this garden,” Obama told the fifth-grade students who helped her seed it.

Reactions at home have run the gamut, from elation in foodie circles to Big Ag’s revulsion at the garden’s organic status. Meanwhile, the First Garden has spurred a race among the gardening faithful to plant flags on other high-profile plots and lay claim to various other gardening firsts, like so many first ascents up mountain tops.

“I’m beyond satisfied,” says Roger Doiron, founding director of Kitchen Gardeners International.

In early 2008, Doiron organized an initiative, dubbed “Eat the View,” to gather signatures encouraging the next first family to replace a section of the White House lawn with a vegetable garden. Worldwide, more than 100,000 people signed on.

While not certified organic, the First Garden is billed as organic in practice—and that’s a dangerous precedent to be amplifying, according to the Mid America CropLife Association (MACA), which represents agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Crop Protection. Following the announcement of Michelle Obama’s garden, MACA sent the First Lady a letter expressing concern that no chemicals will be used to help the crops grow, and fretting that consumers might get the wrong impression about “conventional agriculture.”

After sending the letter to Obama, MACA forwarded it to organization supporters, one of whom forwarded it to Jill Richardson of the La Vida Locavore blog ( The leaked letter came prefaced with the following introductory note:

“Did you hear the news? The White House is planning to have an ‘organic’ garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama’s [sic] and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I [Bonnie McCarvel] shudder.”

There were probably more shudders in the big-chem corner when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack celebrated Earth Day by announcing plans for a 1,300 square-foot organic garden—USDA-certified, of course—to be installed in the National Mall.  

As the First Garden’s ripples continue to spread, plans for me-too governmental gardens are popping up like weeds. Maryland First Lady Katie O’Malley is planning a garden at the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. Maria Shriver, first lady of California, has plans for an organic garden in Sacramento’s Capitol Park come May. A group of Vermont gardeners calling themselves the Association for the Planting of edible Public Landscapes for Everyone (APPLE) has designs on the State House lawn in Montpelier.

APPLE members aren’t hiding the fact that they’re fast-tracking the initial planting of their 280-square-foot garden in an attempt to make their patch the nation’s first statehouse vegetable garden. “[We] tried to beat the Obamas to the punch, but second place is nothing to sneeze at!” wrote APPLE member Scott Sawyer on the Transition Vermont blog (

While this farms race is run, it’s worth noting that several state leaders have had vegetable gardens at their official residences for years. Maine Gov. John Baldacci has been tending a home garden at the governor’s mansion for years. Former Ohio First Lady Hope Taft put in a garden at the governor’s residence in 2001. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal inherited predecessor Kathleen Blanco’s garden. Also pre-dating the Obamas’ garden is the Victory Garden planted at San Francisco City Hall last summer.

While the vegetable garden in front of Baltimore’s City Hall has yet to be planted, Mayor Sheila Dixon is quick to point out that the plot was being planned before the White House garden was announced. “We are not copying!” she emphasized, pointing out that her garden, at 2,000 square feet, will be almost twice as large as the Obamas’.

Doiron, the widely acknowledged force behind the clamor for the White House garden, is now shifting gears. He doesn’t plan to organize any more calls for gardens. Now, he sees a growing need to support the many similar efforts now underway worldwide. He’s excited to cheer them on, offer whatever advice he can, and help publicize their efforts.

“There’s a petition drive to get the government of Georgia to start a garden; there’s a large garden going into the middle of Flint, Michigan’s municipal complex, could be as large as three acres; day before yesterday a garden went in in front of the town hall in Kingston, New York,” he says. “We’ve been contacted by groups in Texas, the United Kingdom, Australia…”

Once these gardens are put in, he says, they’ll begin generating a different kind of buzz as the gardens are maintained and harvested.

Michelle Obama promised that her entire family will help with the weeding “whether they like it or not.” If true, this promises to create more than photo ops the likes of which we’ve never seen. Soon we may begin hearing about revelations reached and decisions made while crouching in the garden rows, because President Obama is soon to discover something that farmers and gardeners have known forever: There’s something about gardening that stimulates the intellect, and does more for a conversation than the strongest cup of coffee.

It may not be long until members of the president’s staff are summoned to the garden to help pull weeds, like it or not. Not because the weeds are getting out of control, but because gardens are where some of humankind’s greatest brainstorming sessions take root. And when we start hearing about the results of these garden sessions, the First Garden’s ripples will start to grow into waves.

Ask Ari: Supporting spuds

Q: What are your thoughts on growing potatoes in old tires?

—Drive-thru Gardener

A: What DG is referring to is a method of potato cultivation by which spuds are planted in the earth, and as they grow, a tower of tires is built around them. Each time a tire is added, it is filled with dirt or straw, effectively burying nearly the entire plant except for the top few inches. This keeps raising the ground level from the perspective of the plant. The buried portion turns into roots and starts growing potatoes. By the end of the season, you will have a normal-sized potato plant sitting on top of your stack of tires, and 4–6 feet of spud-bearing roots within the stack.

This technique is known to produce phenomenal results, and some gardeners have boasted in excess of 100 pounds from a single stack of tires. I’m not a fan of doing this, however, because there are all kinds of toxins that can be leached out by the acidic ph of soil and by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, including heavy metals, zinc, arsenic, creosote and, as tire technology continues to evolve, who knows what else? There are zillions of different types of tires out there designed for all kinds of conditions and vehicles. And while there are many criteria considered in tire design, being food safe isn’t one of them.

Instead, I’d recommend taking some four-foot horse fence, and bending it into a tube. Plant potatoes in the ground, put the fence tube over them and add straw as they grow. This way you get the upward mobility you’re seeking, plus, as an added bonus, the plant can send branches out the sides of the tube through the rectangle mesh. This means more leaves for the plant, which means more photosynthesis, and more potatoes.

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