Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jefferson Honored In First Lady's Kitchen Garden

Seeds and plants from Thomas Jefferson's vast vegetable garden at Monticello were installed as Mrs. Obama hosted the third Spring planting...
"The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture," Thomas Jefferson, America's foremost presidential gardener, once said. First Lady Michelle Obama's version of that pronouncement might be "The greatest service that can be rendered to any community is to add a useful garden." The uptick in America's enthusiasm for edible gardening in the last two years has been credited to Mrs. Obama's 1,500 square-foot South Lawn Kitchen Garden, which she replanted for Spring this afternoon.

Mrs. Obama was joined by two dozen fourth and fifth graders from DC's Bancroft and Harriet Tubman Elementary Schools for the planting, and she was also joined by Jefferson. Seeds and plantings from Jefferson's vast vegetable garden at his Virginia plantation home, Monticello, have been present in Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden from Day One. There are two special beds devoted to Jefferson's favorite vegetables among the 34 newly boxed beds that make up Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden. That's thanks to Monticello's master horticulturalist, Peter Hatch. (Top: Hatch, in blue shirt, stands by the Jefferson beds in the Kitchen Garden; inset is Mrs. Obama and her helpers planting spinach)

For more than three decades, Hatch, an expert in archeological gardening, has overseen the historically accurate re-creation of Jefferson's vast gardens, and he brought some of Jefferson's favorite cool season vegetable plants to the White House this afternoon for the First Lady. These included Tennis-ball, Brown Dutch, and Aleppo lettuces; broccoli and purple broccoli; artichokes; and three kinds of cabbage--Savoy, red, and Early Jersey Wakefield. There was Kale, too. (Above: Hatch at the planting event)

Jefferson cleared the mountaintop above the city of Charlottesville where his plantation is located about two years before starting to build his house, so he could have an orchard going by the time he was ready to take up residence. Among his favorite type of figs was the Marseilles, and Hatch also brought a juvenile Marseilles fig plant for Mrs. Obama's garden.

Hatch also brought seeds from Monticello's collection, including three varieties of beans--Red Calico bean, Carolina lima bean, and Scarlet-runner bean. Prickly-seeded spinach, Purple Calabash and Costoluto Genovese tomato seeds. Cow’s Horn okra, and Texas bird pepper, were also in the mix, Hatch said.

Jefferson didn't have a vegetable garden at the White House--then known as the President's House--when he was in office between 1801 and 1809, but in a sense, he does now, more than a century later. Today was the third Spring planting since the First Lady first broke ground for the Kitchen Garden on March 20, 2009. It's a bit of an early start: In Spring of 2010, the Kitchen Garden was planted on March 31.

"I thought it was just going to be a teach kids about good food," Mrs. Obama said of her Kitchen Garden in 2009, as she spoke at a ceremony to open the first-ever Farmers Market By the White House. "But as it turns out, the garden has turned into so much more. It's been one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life so far."

The First Lady's Kitchen Garden is the first on White House grounds since World War II, and she and the President are routinely queried about it during visits with world leaders and other foreign dignitaries, Mrs. Obama has said. And she's shared that other famous garden with daughters Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9: Mrs. Obama and the girls have twice visited Monticello, once in July of 2009, and again in August of 2010.

Related: The First Lady will publish a book about the Kitchen Garden in April of 2012, she announced today. Senior East Wing staffers joined Mrs. Obama for the planting. A video and transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks at the planting is here. Read about Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Gardening gear here.

Hatch is the author of Thomas Jefferson's Gardens and The Fruits and Trees of Monticello, among many other titles, and he has a new book on Jefferson and gardening forthcoming from Yale University Press next Fall. Monticello is maintained by The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation; visit their website here.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/; updated with photos after the planting