A newly set paving stone at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., reads “WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN GARDEN, established in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama with the hope of growing a healthier nation for our children.”
The placing of this stone in the White House Kitchen Garden was celebrated in October, along with a number of other embellishments, including entry arbors, seating, and a table made of steel and wood salvaged from places such as the estates of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.
“This garden represents the transformational change we’ve seen in just the past six and a half years,” Obama said at her garden’s Oct. 5 dedication.
In her book American Grown (Crown, 2010), she explained that when she first moved into the White House — which is a national park — she wasn’t sure she’d be allowed to plant a vegetable garden. But after talks with the National Park Service that oversees the grounds, she was given about 1,100 square feet in a corner of the South Lawn that she turned into an L-shaped plot.
“The garden is sort of tucked in on one side,” said Marta McDowell, author of All the Presidents’ Gardens (Timber Press, 2016). That’s so it doesn’t interfere with the iconic view from the White House to the Washington and Jefferson Monuments, but is still visible from the street.
“The White House is a place of tradition and historic significance, and those who chose the location of the garden respected that,” said McDowell.
In 2009, with the help of local schoolchildren, Michelle Obama broke ground for the Kitchen Garden. They then shaped the plot into mounded beds and planted. That first year, rain washed out those beds, but there still was a harvest that included collards, kale, spinach and fennel.
The White House Kitchen Garden Grows
The garden has increased in size over the years so that, today, it measures 2,800 square feet and includes raised beds that won’t wash away. They have been planted with seeds, some of which Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds emeritus for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, supplied from Monticello during his tenure over those gardens.
These seeds include some of Jefferson’s favorites, such as Brown Dutch lettuce, Marseille figs, Green Globe artichokes and prickly seeded spinach. Even beets have been planted, although President Barack Obama doesn’t like their sweet red globes.
Today the garden provides about 2,000 pounds of fresh produce annually. The fruits and vegetables are turned into meals by White House kitchen staff members, including Sam Kass, the Obamas’ private chef, who came to Washington with them in 2008.
The produce is served to the First Family, as well as at state dinners. The excess is donated to charities that feed the hungry.
Garden-tenders get help
Beehives were introduced to the Kitchen Garden and have become important for providing pollinators as well as honey. In fact, the first year, 2014, the busy bees produced 140 pounds of the sweet stuff.
The garden’s bounty has traveled worldwide. In 2011, the Obamas visited Prince Charles in the United Kingdom and took along seeds and plants for the royal, who is an avid gardener. Pope Francis also received seeds, and heads of state are often given honey.
With a new First Family, the Trumps, moving into the White House in January, the future of the White House Kitchen Garden will be in their hands. Michelle Obama hopes her beds of mustard greens, shell peas and broccoli will continue to be appreciated.
After all, said Hatch, retired director of gardens and grounds for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, “She’s said the Kitchen Garden is her ‘baby.’”
This is Part 1 of a three-part series on the White House Gardens. Part 2 will detail the history of vegetable-growing on the White House grounds.