From the White House to Clarence House: Before President Obama presented a special greeny gift to The Prince of Wales, USDA inspected Mrs. Obama's world-famous vegetable garden...
The White House has never publicly released a formal report that details the occurrence of plant diseases or pests in First Lady Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden, where chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are not used. The 1,500 square-foot garden, which is not certified organic, has been growing like gangbusters despite an intense Spring heatwave, and in fact, it seems to be free of any kind of problems. That's the word from Michael Perry, an Export Specialist for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in the office of Plant Protection and Quarantine. (Above: Mrs. Obama with helpers at the most recent Kitchen Garden harvest and planting)
Perry was charged with getting the international Customs clearances for the very special garden gift that President Obama presented to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales as part of a formal gift exchange with the Royal Family during his May State Visit to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The President's gift, packed in a box made from the wood of a Magnolia tree that fell on the White House grounds, contained a selection of 34 different plants, seedlings and seeds from Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, as well as the gardens at Monticello, the historically preserved plantation home of President Thomas Jefferson, and Mount Vernon, the historic estate of President George Washington. (Above: The President and The Prince in London)
The presidential gift passed the United Kingdom and European Union's strict agricultural import standards for pests and diseases with flying colors, Perry reports in a post on USDA's blog.
"There was no question President Obama’s gift would require strict adherence to the United Kingdoms’ plant import requirements, and it was my job to insure that happened," Perry wrote.
Perry's tasks to get the Customs clearances necessary to transport the gift included inspecting "the plants, greenhouses, and hardening areas for White House plants to assure they met all of the EU’s standards." He had to file a Customs declaration for the gift, which contained "a phytosanitary certificate, with an astonishing 19 additional declarations."
One of the foremost advocates for organic farming in the world, The Prince is an avid gardener and has ornamental and vegetable gardens at Clarence House, his official residence in London, as well as at his other homes, and the presidential gifts were intended for use. Like the White House, Clarence House is open to citizens for tours, and that includes the gardens. The Obama gift contained edible and non-edible selections: Cheddar Cauliflower and Monticello heritage vegetables, such as Texas bird pepper, as well as English boxwood and American holly.
Jars of honey from the first-ever White House Beehive were also included in the President's gift for The Prince, but Perry makes no mention of these in his report. But he does note that the one-of-a kind Magnolia gift box also had to be inspected and certified.
"Even the beautiful wooden container used to present the gift required authorization because it was made of historic magnolia that included tree bark accents," Perry wrote. "Products with bark demand strictest scrutiny because they can carry pests."
Bark beetles are currently infesting large swathes of forest land in the US, and the USDA has been fighting a losing battle to contain the epidemic. Perry also described some of the hands-on work he had to do before the gift could be transported, to meet official requirements.
"To comply with EU soil rules, I had to clean some plants, including roots, and place them in a peat-less media," Perry wrote. "Like most live plant shipments, this cargo was very perishable and smooth transport was vital."
Perry doesn't mention if any Kitchen Garden items had to be removed from the gift, due to insect or disease issues, however.
"I was honored to facilitate the export of this White House gift, knowing they would soon be growing in a palace garden," Perry concluded.
Perry is one of the few civilians to see the Royal gift; the White House did not release a photo. Gifts from Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden have been presented to important guests in the past: Mrs. Obama gave a special tea set with jars of White House Honey to the spouses of world leaders attending the Pittsburgh G20 in 2009, and last year, she presented baskets filled with pickled vegetables and teas made from Kitchen Garden crops to UN spouses attending a special farm-to-table luncheon she hosted in New York (above).
How the garden grows...
As for no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides being used in the Kitchen Garden: The soil gets fed with a nutrient-rich compost that is created on site, in the "biocycler," which is located behind the garden plot. Vegetable leavings and table scraps are used in the biocycler; watch a video clip here about how it works. The National Park Service takes care of the Kitchen Garden, as it does the rest of the White House grounds; Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass makes many of the decisions about what vegetables will be planted, while chief White House horticulturalist Jim Adams oversees the day-to-day activities.
An army of volunteers weed the garden and do other chores, and the garden was revamped with new boxed beds this Spring, in part because volunteers were stepping on plants as well as mistaking them for weeds, because the lush garden was growing so well, according to an East Wing aide.
So where are the White House greenhouses that Perry had to inspect located? That's "top secret," Mrs. Obama's Press Secretary told Obama Foodorama during the Spring Planting event in March. She was only half joking, and declined to reveal where, exactly, the starter plants are grown. The White House has made much of the connection to and sourcing from Jefferson's Monticello garden; Master Horticulturalist Peter Hatch, who oversees the operation, has helped plant vegetables during at least three of the Kitchen Garden events. There's a special Jefferson bed in Mrs. Obama's garden, which contains the Jefferson's favorite vegetable varieties: Tennis-ball, Brown Dutch, and Aleppo lettuces; broccoli and purple broccoli; artichokes; and three kinds of cabbage--Savoy, Red, and Early Jersey Wakefield; and Kale.
In April of 2012, Mrs. Obama will publish a book about her experiences with the Kitchen Garden, designed to promote school and community gardens, and healthy eating.
*Photos by Obama Foodorama, except for Prince of Wales; that's from The British Monarchy; Gift Basket photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House.