Wednesday, March 16, 2011

First Lady's Kitchen Garden Gets A Facelift

New boxes for all the vegetable beds...
The White House Kitchen Garden had a spiffy new look on Wednesday afternoon, when First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed two dozen fourth and fifth graders from DC's Bancroft and Harriet Tubman Elementary Schools for the third annual Spring planting.

Each of the 34 different vegetable beds are now in raised boxes, which are made from wood stained with an unspecified non-toxic dye. Previously, the garden had six vegetable boxes, which contained crops like rhubarb and sweet potatoes. Now, the entire garden is boxed into raised beds. Tall poles for beans have also been installed. (Above: The garden, right before the planting started)

The boxes are designed to "clean up" the garden, and to prevent erosion to ensure that the vegetables can thrive, according to a White House aide. (Above: Mrs. Obama plants spinach as her Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, Sam Kass, looks on)

"People would be stepping on young plants, because they weren't sure if they were weeds, or vegetables," the aide said. "We want to encourage all the staff to volunteer, and this makes it easier, so no one is afraid they're ruining vegetables."

Grey stones are laid in between the boxes to create walking paths. The seeds and starter plants for the Kitchen Garden, as well as the box materials and the dirt inside, come from what the aide joked is "a top secret" White House green house, in a "top secret" location.

The White House says that the initial start-up cost for the Kitchen Garden in 2009 was less than $200, but the price of the project has gone well beyond that. The White House chefs--and a bevy of volunteers--help with the weeding and do the harvesting when the berries and vegetables are ready, but the Kitchen Garden is visible to tourists standing on the other side of the fence that runs along the bottom of the South Lawn, and it must look pristine at all times. The National Park Service maintains the White House grounds, and the Kitchen Garden, too. It is meticulous work, and labor-intensive.

The Kitchen Garden has also received donations of heritage vegetables and seeds from Monticello, the preserved plantation home of President Thomas Jefferson in Albemarle County, Virginia, which has an historically accurate recreation of Jefferson's own vegetable garden. It's overseen by master horticulturalist Peter Hatch, who was at Wednesday's planting, and had brought some of Jefferson's favorite vegetables and seeds. (Above: An arugula box, with young plants awaiting installation)

During the planting, the First Lady and her two helpers planted turnip seeds, spinach, and collards, and the White House chefs and other staffers were paired with kids to install the other young plants and seeds.

Above, the Kitchen Garden on June 4, 2010, during the special Spring Harvest that was held during the launch of the Chefs Move to Schools initiative. Two of the original boxes are visible at left.

*The transcript and video of Mrs. Obama's remarks at the Spring planting event is here. Mrs. Obama will publish a book about the Kitchen Garden in April of 2012. The press release for her forthcoming book is here.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/