Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Vegging Out In Ohio With Horticulture Pros: Sam Kass Discusses First Lady's Kitchen Garden

During a visit to Columbus, the Senior Policy Advisor tells the tale of the brave little White House fig tree...
While President Obama was purchasing fabulous chili creations in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Monday, the man who cooks his dinner at the White House was in another part of the Buckeye State, talking about gardening. Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass visited Columbus to address the Association of Horticulture Professionals during their annual conference, held at the local convention center. During a presentation titled "Gardening’s Positive Impact on Our Communities & Our Lives," Kass told stories about First Lady Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden, which included his favorite tale about a young fig tree that has had a challenging life in the three years it has been at the White House. (Above: Kass and his beloved fig tree in April)

"It's an amazing opportunity to give children the chance to get their hands dirty," Kass said about the 1,500-square-foot vegetable plot, according to The Columbus Dispatch. He described the garden as primarily an educational tool for Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign.

"Plants are the foundation of life," Kass said. "The First Lady's garden is a story of the power of plants."

Kass gave plenty of details about success and failures in the Kitchen Garden, and told the crowd about the fig tree that was first planted on one side of the Kitchen Garden in 2009. It was a Marseilles sapling cultivated from a tree at President Thomas Jefferson's garden at his plantation home in Monticello, in Charlottesville, Va, and donated by Monticello's expert gardener Peter Hatch. Kass has often hailed the tree as his most beloved element in the garden.

But volunteers work in the Kitchen Garden each week, and at one point in 2009 the very small tree was confused with a weed, and a volunteer pulled it up and tossed it on the compost heap. Kass later discovered the terrible mistake, and re-planted the tree.

"I apologized to it," Kass said. "It was so mad at us."

The leaves on the tree turned yellow after it was re-planted, but after much coaxing, it returned to health and it is now more than six feet tall. The little tree fruited for the first time late in the summer season last year, but too late to actually produce edible figs. This year, it is full of figs, Kass said. It is currently the only tree on the 18-acre White House campus that produces edible fruit.

The fig tree is not the only plant that has suffered under the hands of overly enthusiastic volunteers: All the beds in the Kitchen Garden were boxed in 2010, so volunteer weeders would be able to better distinguish between actual vegetables and their invasive friends.

Mrs. Obama also tells the story of the brave fig tree in her book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, published in May. Kass told the Columbus crowd other stories from the book, including describing the challenges he has had growing melons that are tasty: The White House melons, including cantaloupe, looked good, but they were flavorless.

The Association's convention is the largest gathering of professionals in North America. Rather than returning to the White House after his Columbus outing, Kass traveled to Denver, Colorado after his speech in Ohio, to speak at the School Nutrition Association's annual convention on Tuesday.

*Photo courtesy of The Hagstrom Report/Charles E. de Bourbon