Thursday, April 09, 2009

Michelle Obama Leads White House Kitchen Garden Planting, With A Little Help From Tom Vilsack & Sam Kass...and Thomas Jefferson & Peter Hatch!

First Lady Michelle Obama started planting the White House Kitchen Garden shortly after 3 PM Eastern time today, with a little help from her friends: A group of Bancroft Elementary School fifth graders, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and White House assistant chef Sam Kass. The seeds and starts put in included lettuce, kale, collards, onions and shallots, fennel, and berries. Sam Fromartz of Chewswise reports that some of the seeds and starts came from Thomas Jefferson's historic plantation, Monticello. Which is fantastic, because President Jefferson's restored garden is a masterpiece of wonderful greeniness. (Above: The First Lady planting herbs, with the help of a student)

Monticello sits atop a small mountain in Charlottesville, Virginia, about two hours south of Washington. Jefferson was a legendary gardener, and there’s been an amazing, historically accurate, two-acre recreation of Jefferson’s garden at the Albemarle county plantation for 31 years. Peter Hatch, the Director of Gardens and Grounds (pictured), is the foremost authority on Jefferson and gardening, and the author of numerous books on the subject. When he arrived at Monticello as a horticulturist in 1977, Mr. Hatch was charged with re-creating the landscape at Monticello as it originally existed, and he's done an incredible job. Mr. Hatch worked with landscape architects, architectural historians, geologists and archaeologists to determine the original layout of Jefferson’s vegetable garden and orchard, and referred to Jefferson’s detailed writings on the subject in order to ensure accuracy. Today, Mr. Hatch's version of Jefferson's garden is a vitally important source for heirloom seeds as well as for gardening and cultural education, and is a showpiece of working beauty. It also provides produce for the Monticello Cafe, which opened last fall in advance of the new Monticello Visitor's Center, which opens April 15.

During a recent chat about the garden at Monticello, Mr. Hatch called Jefferson “our most illustrious epicure,” and said that his approach to gardening was as path-breaking and far-sighted as his approach to politics. He credits Jefferson with forever changing what was eaten and grown in Colonial America; interestingly, while many of Jefferson’s vegetables are now considered heirloom “American” varieties, they were not native to America.

“Jefferson’s garden was an Ellis island of unusual plants from around world," Mr. Hatch said. “The tradition in Virginia was to grow things from the old world…root vegetables, cabbages, greens. These things suffer in Virginia, in the hot summer, but Jefferson designed his garden for the full-blast heat of Virginia, where it gets terribly hot. He introduced lima beans, peanuts, eggplants, okra, sesame, tomatoes, crowder peas…the way he exploited the vegetables from hot parts of the world was revolutionary.”

Jefferson was as enthusiastic about spreading the good gardening word and seeds as he was about spreading democracy, too.

“Jefferson was almost messianic in the way he would pass out vegetables and seeds to neighbors and friends, to promote their use,” Mr. Hatch said. “He wanted to promote gardening in America in general, and he said ‘the greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.’” (Picture: A bird's eye view of Monticello, and the garden)

Mr. Hatch said that after Jefferson became president and moved to Washington, he continued his garden proselytizing. He was crucial to establishing farmers' markets in the area, and would pay top dollar for produce other farmers grew using his own seeds. Jefferson also had a small garden at the White House, which was then known, simply, as “The President’s House.”

Mr. Hatch said that Jefferson’s use of the produce from his own garden profoundly changed what was cooked and eaten at The President’s House, too. There was an emphasis on French cuisine, the impact of which was felt essentially until White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib arrived during Bill Clinton’s first term, and transformed White House cuisine into what is today: A showcase for American foods and cooking techniques. A little ironically, the current White House Kitchen Garden is being considered "revolutionary" because it's organic, but it's not so much revolutionary as it is going back to the very roots of gardening in America, when the idea of pesticides and chem fertilizers weren't even a glimmer in a Robber Baron's industrial eye....

Monticello is maintained by The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation; visit their website here. Mr. Hatch is the author of Thomas Jefferson's Gardens and The Fruits and Trees of Monticello, among many other titles. His books are available through the Monticello book store or at Amazon.
H/T: Sam Fromartz at Chewswise.