The White House Community Garden
Michelle Obama's book is worth reading
was re-organizing my gardening books and came across a great book by Michelle
Obama: American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens
Across America (Crown Publishers, 2012, $30 in hardback). I must have gotten it
when it came out, but never read it until now. It’s a wonderful book, and every
library should own it. Not only is it a good gardening book, it is a look into
the life and character of Michelle Obama.
Obama grew up in Chicago and never had the chance to garden as a child or young
adult. But as a mom, she knew she wanted her children to eat fresh organic food
whenever possible. When she and the family moved into the White House she had
the opportunity to have a garden.
With the help
from fifth graders at nearby Bancroft Elementary School, Michelle Obama created
a vegetable and herb garden. They also got help from National Park Service
staff, a professional farmer, and the staff of the White House, especially the
cooks. Their garden thrived and the food was not only eaten by the Obamas, but
shared with the children who helped plant it, and with a local homeless shelter
called Miriam’s Kitchen.
Michelle in White House Garden
This book is
more than a feel-good story. Yes, a third of the food went to the homeless
shelter. And yes, low-income children got to work in the garden and eat the
results of their labor. But it also tells the story of how to create a garden,
starting with removing the sod. It’s full of useful gardening information.
It is full of spectacular photos showing the gardens every step of the way, from planting to harvest. It has diagrams and layouts of the gardens. It explains the importance of getting a soil test before planting. And it has recipes for using (and knowing when to pick and how to store) things like bok choi or cauliflower, which most of the Bancroft Elementary students had never encountered.
Like most beginning gardeners, Michelle Obama had doubts: “What if the seeds or seedlings were not set in correctly and we ended up with empty beds? What if we couldn’t control the weeds? I worried about the weather … What if the plants didn’t grow? And what if, after all this effort, the food that did grow didn’t taste good?” But her fears were unfounded, and the garden was a huge success.
The book includes profiles of
others who worked in the garden with her and really gave full credit to
everyone who helped, taking none for herself. And the book includes vignettes
and photos of many community gardens around the country.
Canillas Community Garden in Lebanon, NH. photo credit: Pat McGovern
I particularly liked a section on a
container garden in Houston, Texas. The Houston Parks Department donated 34
huge planting containers that were installed on a stone patio in front of a
high-rise office building. Each floor got one or more of these waist-high
containers and a choice of vegetables to plant. Office workers took turns
watering and weeding – and taking home the lettuce, okra, tomatoes and more.
As most of you know, Michelle Obama
has been a supporter of healthy eating and active lifestyles for children as a
way to be healthy and reduce obesity. This garden, which she calls a community
garden, is part of that effort. The book also profiles others – some well-known
athletes, some ordinary citizens – who are doing things that support her goals.
I loved a picture of 400 kids in purple tee-shirts doing jumping jacks on the
South Lawn with her in an effort to break a Guinness Book of Records record.
And they did, over 300,000 people participated at the same time around the
Not everyone can have a garden, or
even pots on a patio. Mrs. Obama spent time in the book lauding farmers
markets, too. Fresh, local food is good food. She pointed out that Thomas
Jefferson had started the first farmers market in Washington, D.C. (and that he
also had a kitchen garden at the White House). So she lobbied city officials
and got approval for a farmers market near the White House.
Rutland, Vermont Farmers Market
I haven’t tried any of the recipes
in this book, but they look very good. Her corn soup made with fresh corn and
thyme looks great, I shall try it next summer. And the spinach pie seems like a
So as I bundle up to go outside on
a cold January day, I like to think back to summer and my own vegetable garden.
I like going to my freezer to extract bags of kale and squash for making my own
soup. And I enjoy sitting by the fires and reading about other fine gardens. I
think you would like Mrs. Obama’s book. I did.
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