Friday, April 12, 2013

Sam Kass Discusses The Spring 2013 Crops In The White House Kitchen Garden, From 'Sylvetta' Arugula To 'Experimental' Wheat

The First Lady's organic garden currently has more than 30 kinds of vegetables, berries, and herbs...
UPDATE:  CLICK HERE for the latest on the crop progress 
"We've harvested thousands of pounds of produce" since First Lady Michelle Obama first planted her White House Kitchen Garden on April 9, 2009, says Assistant Chef and Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass.  Joined by 30 school children and White House staff, Mrs. Obama hosted her fifth annual Spring planting event on April 4th, installing more than 30 kinds of organic vegetable seedlings and seeds, including heirlooms and hybrids.  A detailed crop list, with varieties, is at the end of this post.  (Above, Mrs. Obama and a helper plant 'Tyee' spinach)  

Planting wheat seed
Many of the vegetables are Obama favorites grown in years past, but the First Lady for the first time planted two kinds of wheat seed, 'Bread' and 'Club,' which Kass characterized as "experimental varieties."  There's also six kinds of lettuce, four varieties of spinach, three varieties of potatoes, three kinds of berries, and two varieties each of kale, broccoli, Swiss chard and garlic, as well as arugula, tatsoi, kohlrabi, endive, collards, herbs and more.

Each time Mrs. Obama has hosted a planting event with children, one or two new crops are given the spotlight (the 2012 Spring planting featured potatoes), and Kass is excited about the wheat.  

"We will harvest late July-ish," Kass said, and explained that the wheat is "experimental varieties" grown by "a breeder who was breeding new varieties."  For those unfamiliar with plant genetics, "experimental" does not mean genetically modified with materials from another kind of plant.  UPDATE, May 24:  Mrs. Obama has scheduled a summer harvest for May 28.

"There are no genetically modified crops in our garden," Kass said.

Kass planting wheat seed
Club wheat is a soft wheat, and Kass said that it has a head that looks like a club, almost "a ball," rather than the usual long wheat sheaf.  It's typically used for cake and bread flour, and grown almost exclusively in the Pacific Northwest.  Varieties of Bread wheat are grown in temperate regions around the world.  Kass has plans to use the mature wheat to make the first-ever homebrewed White House Wheat Beer and other whole-grain goodies (details are here).  

Kass also has plans to expand the wheat crop.

"There's a big bed, a big bed in the back and we're gonna plant the next round of wheat there," Kass said.  He joked that he and his fellow staffers might be the only people whom Secret Service allows on the South Lawn with scythes.  

Though wheat is one of America's largest agricultural exports, Kass said the decisions about new crops for the Kitchen Garden are not politically driven, despite the fact that last year's first-ever potato planting came on the heels of a major Congressional controversy over limiting white potatoes and starchy vegetables in the National School Lunch Program. 

"We have never planted anything because we have been asked to plant it," Kass said.   

"Of course everyone would like to see their crops in the garden, and we've had many seeds sent to us...but those potatoes were not planted because anybody asked us to plant them."

More new, first-ever crops will be planted when the weather is warmer.  "Some surprises," Kass said.  "I can't tell you all my secrets."

'Mountain Rose' potatoes
Since 2009, Kass and other White House aides have declined to identify where the seeds and seedlings installed in Mrs. Obama's garden actually originate--"we have not made a habit of saying where we get things from," Kass said.  But this year during the planting, the bags of potato seedlings (Yukon Gold, French Fingerling, Mountain Rose) and some seed packets sitting on the beds awaiting installation were clearly marked with labels from the organic Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon.  The company ships to gardeners nationwide. 

Mrs. Obama's aides in the past have said that many of the young plants that are transplanted into the White House plot are grown in a National Park Service green house in a "top secret" location.  And one White House chef revealed last year that some of the crops are grown by a well-known organic farmer who has advised on the garden, who is responsible for the over-sized rhubarb that led to "rhubarbgate."

The Kitchen Garden is what is called a succession garden, and the boxed beds are planted year round.  Organic practices and integrated pest management are used; there are no chemical or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, though the garden is not "certified" organic.  There are no plans to try to gain "official" organic certification, Kass said.

"This is a teaching garden for children," Kass said.  "We do not want to get involved in the controversy between organic and conventional growing."

The garden has its own composter, called the "biocycler," which uses scraps from the kitchen.  National Park Service staff tend the garden; the White House Supervisory Horticulturalist is Jim Adams, and there's also an organic farmer on staff, Matt Burch.  The White House chefs and volunteers also contribute to weeding efforts. 

'Amish Deer Tongue' lettuce
The crops are used for First Family meals, for State Dinners and other important meals, and about one third of the produce is donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a DC social services agency that provides daily healthy meals for homeless citizens.  Honey from the beehive that sits near the garden is also donated.  It is the first beehive to be on White House grounds.

Also new as of this Spring is a very young apple tree, a Virginia Beauty, which has been permanently planted by the raised beds in the garden that pay homage to President Thomas Jefferson, located on the north side.  A Marseilles fig tree cultivated from a tree at Jefferson's Monticello plantation home in Virginia is also in the garden, but it is in a box and has been moved a number of times since arriving in 2009.  It offered edible fruit for the first time last year.  A potted papaya tree that produces fruit is wheeled into the garden during the warmer months.

Mrs. Obama's book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, published last year, contains a detailed history of her garden and her Let's Move! campaign.  It is available from Crown Publishing, Inc..  There is also a series of Let's Move! gardening guides and checklists at

'Champion' Collards

White House Kitchen Garden Spring 2013 Crops


'Paris White'
'Spotted Aleppo'
'Chadwick's Rodan'
'Amish Deer Tongue' 


*Swiss Chard
'Bright Yellow'
'Fordhook Giant'

'Early Curled Siberian' 

*Sea Kale

'Early Purple Vienna'


*Napa Cabbage



'Southern Giant Curled' 




*Broccoli Rabe

'Purple of Sicily' 


'Yukon Gold'
'French Fingerling' 
'Mountain Rose'

'French Breakfast'


'Eric's German White' Garlic
'Eric's German White' 





'Kentucky Colonel'








Above, an overhead view of the planting.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; overhead view by Lawrence Jackson/White House