Tuesday, November 27, 2012

White House Kitchen Garden Update: An Organic Farmer In Charge, And Cool Season Vegetables

The First Lady's signature Let's Move! vegucation project is thriving through the cold months, growing an impressive variety of organic vegetables...
It's been bitterly cold in the District of Columbia lately, but First Lady Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden is thriving with a wide variety of cool season vegetables growing in the 1,500 square foot plot of raised beds: Winter lettuces and cabbages, root vegetables, herbs.  More seasonal crops will soon be transplanted into the succession garden on the South Lawn, and protective hoop houses will be installed very soon, ahead of the first hard frost, according to Matt Burch, the organic farmer who is now in charge of the most famous symbol of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign. (Above: Burch in the Kitchen Garden with heritage Scarlet Runner Beans in the background)

Burch left his duties at his own organic Lei-Kei Farm in Clear Brook, Virginia, to join the White House team earlier this year, hired on as a National Park Service staffer specifically to manage the First Lady's signature child vegucation project.

"My priority is the Kitchen Garden," Burch told Obama Foodorama, "but I work on the other gardens if needed."  The 18-acre White House campus includes numerous ornamental gardens, such as the famous Rose Garden where President Obama makes important speeches.

In May, Mrs. Obama introduced the nation to her gardening team in the pages of her bestselling book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, but Burch wasn't included: "I started after it came out," he said.  Burch holds a B.S. in horticulture from West Virginia University, and his twelve-acre vegetable farm was named for two of his young daughters.  He grew organic and heirloom varieties, and ran a Community Supported Agriculture program in addition to selling crops at farmers markets and at local restaurants including the acclaimed Inn at Little Washington. The farm is now transitioning into an organic orchard, Burch said.

It was perfect experience for Burch to run the Kitchen Garden, which is used daily by the most talented chefs in the nation.  The First Family's Thanksgiving feast included Kitchen Garden kale and other winter lettuces, shallots, radish, garlic, fennel, carrots, previously harvested Sweet Potatoes, and a wide variety of herbs, including Thyme, Parsley, and Sage.  There are plenty of other cool-season crops now growing:  Napa Cabbage, Swiss Chard, Collard Greens, Spinach, Mustard Greens, Turnips, Pak Choi, Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts, and Rhutabaga.  There's a huge Lemongrass plant in one bed; Executive Chef Cris Comerford, a native of the Philippines, loves to infuse her recipes with her culinary heritage, and Lemongrass is widely used in Filipino cooking.  (Above: A long view of the Kitchen Garden on Monday; the Lemongrass is the large pom-pom at left)

Mrs. Obama has been gifted with starter plants for the Kitchen Garden from local organic farmers, according to staff, such as the massive Rhubarb plants that have been grown in the past, the jocular subject of Rhubarbgate.  Other vegetables are raised in a White House greenhouse that's off-site, at a top-secret location that neither Burch nor any other White House staffer will disclose.  On Monday, flats of young lettuces sat on a picnic table at the back of the Kitchen Garden, awaiting transplant into the crop rows.  (Above, the picnic table, behind the raised beds, with flats of young lettuces)

"We start almost everything in the greenhouse," Burch said.

Mrs. Obama's garden is visible daily to hundreds of visitors who stand behind the South Lawn fence to glimpse the White House, and it is scrupulously maintained by Burch and the team, which is overseen by Supervisory Horticulturalist Jim Adams.  Mrs. Obama first broke ground for the Kitchen Garden in March of 2009, and after more than three years in existence, the Kitchen Garden is not officially certified organic--but is grown with exclusively organic methods.  No chemical or synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used; instead, Burch and the team use organic methods and rely on integrated pest management practices and a campaign of aggressive removal.

"Sometimes we just pull an entire plant out if it's infested," Burch said, rather than try to save it by trimming off parts that have insect eggs or damage. Insects are currently not a major issue, thanks to the cold weather.  Squirrels and birds like the berries that are grown in the summer, but there is no other threat from wildlife, such as deer.

The White House is in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7a, and temperatures in DC have varied lately, with recent lows in the mid-30s at night and daytime highs in the upper 40s with an occasional spike higher.  Carefully situated on the South Lawn, with trees trimmed for optimal light, the Kitchen Garden currently gets loads of sun on clear days until about 2:30 PM.  (Above: The right side of the garden, with a now-dormant ornamental Crabapple tree)

As for the hoop houses that will shortly be added to the garden: These are aluminum hoops that are covered with plastic sheeting and placed over the raised beds.  They're a low-cost way to keep the soil warm and protect the vegetables from the elements, and used by farmers and gardeners around the nation. 

In years past, the hoop houses have been installed in late November or the first week of December.  In 2010, when back-to-back blizzards covered the District during what locals dubbed "Snowmageddon," the hoop houses worked perfectly, and the Kitchen Garden continued to grow, though covered under more than two feet of snow.   Above: There's a special section of the Kitchen Garden that's in homage to President Thomas Jefferson, with heritage vegetable varieties from his garden at Monticello, but this Marseilles Fig tree, cultivated from a Jefferson tree, is in a raised bed on the opposite side of the garden.  It produced its first crop of edible fruit this year, according to Burch.

Kitchen Garden beds that do not currently contain vegetables are being planted with a cover crop of Rye, Burch said, a practice often used by large-scale organic farmers.  It will later be tilled back into the soil to offer more nutrients in addition to the amendments that are added at various points during the year.

At the last official count, the Kitchen Garden had produced more than 4,000 pounds of vegetables since 2009, according to Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, the mastermind behind the project. Crops are used for First Family meals, social events including State Dinners, and about one third of the bounty is donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a social services agency that offers healthy, organic meals to DC's homeless population.  (Above:  Some of the Kitchen Garden hoop houses in late November of 2011)

Thanks to the rigorous requirements of the 2012 reelection race, Mrs. Obama had no public Fall Harvest event with school children this year, but the White House welcomed Social Media enthusiasts for a special tour, and the garden was viewed by thousands of visitors during the annual Fall Garden Tours, held during two weekends in October.  The White House Beehive--currently dormant--was on view, too.  The hive produced 175 pounds of honey this year.  It is now best known for supplying the signature ingredient for the homebrewed White House beers.

Hoop houses are also called "high tunnels" and "low tunnels," depending on their size.  Kass explains the Kitchen Garden hoop houses in this White House video from 2010:

*Check the sidebar of the blog for all the Kitchen Garden-inspired vegetable recipes released by the White House.

Correction, Nov. 28:  Jim Adams' correct title is "Supervisory Horticulturalist," not Chief Horticulturalist as previously noted.  There is currently no Arugula in the Kitchen Garden.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; book cover courtesy of Crown Publishing, Inc., a division of Random House.