Friday, October 11, 2013

The White House In Shutdown: First Lady Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden Is Wrecked

Photos: The showcase plot is filled with unharvested vegetables and weeds; a fox has moved onto the grounds; and the squirrels are having a field day...
UPDATE, Oct. 18: Gardeners go back to work as shutdown ends
UPDATE, Oct. 15: This report makes global headlines 
Washington, DC - The first government shutdown in seventeen years has had a dramatic impact on First Lady Michelle Obama's world-famous Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn, currently bursting with more than thirty kinds of vegetables, including Presidential pumpkins awaiting harvest just in time for Halloween.  (Above, Mrs. Obama in the garden in happier days) 

In the eleven days since the shutdown began on Oct. 1, the pounds and pounds of ripe organic bounty have gone to waste.  The vegetables filling the 1,500 square-foot plot are now rotting away on the vines and in the boxed beds, thanks to the mandate for "minimal maintenance" placed on the skeletal crew of National Park Service gardeners who remain on duty at 1600 Penn.  

The gardeners are not allowed to harvest the crops, a White House source told Obama Foodorama.  Weeds are springing up everywhere, and the vegetables that have already fallen off the vines are now mouldering on the ground.

There are also mushrooms popping up inside and outside the garden beds, and leaf litter raining from the trees like confetti.  The wildlife that lives on the historic 18-acre campus--including a newly arrived fox now making a home at the White House--are having a field day.

It's a big change for the iconic symbol for Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign, which she lovingly memorialized in her book American Grown.  The First Lady has been credited with a national spike in home and school gardening, but her Kitchen Garden is to a backyard plot as a Bentley is to a VW Bug.  It is usually curated with obsessive precision, a masterpiece of living installation art.

Shutdown Day 4: On a foggy morning, a gardener waters
Right now, gardeners are allowed just two activities:  Watering and removing trash.  Though White House Supervisory Horticulturalist Jim Adams, who oversees the Kitchen Garden, remains on duty, weeds and fallen leaves don't qualify as "trash," so the gardeners are not allowed to destroy garden invaders, nor are they allowed to rake.  

Also off limits:  Trimming, fertilizing, transplanting, and mowing the grass.  The vast automated sprinkler system that snakes through the campus can be used, and during last week's heat wave, the grounds were getting a daily drenching.

Since starting her garden in 2009, each October* Mrs. Obama has invited school children to join her for an autumn harvest party.  But those plans are on hold for the remainder of the shutdown, cancelled like the rest of the First Lady's public events.  That includes those for Let's Move!:  Executive Director Sam Kass is on furlough.

Until the Congressional showdown ends, there will be no happy little helpers joining Mrs. Obama to pluck the artichoke, okra, sweet potatoes, lettuces, squash, tomatoes, peppers, kale, carrots, rhutabaga, garlic, cabbage, exotic herbs, Swiss chard, collard and mustard greens, spinach, garlic, turnips, jalapeno and chili peppers that are now growing amok.  

Also now cancelled are the weekly Kitchen Garden weeding sessions held each Tuesday morning, led by Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses.  He's also on furlough, as are many of the volunteers who help weed, selected from among the ranks of White House staff and other government agencies.  Yosses and his crew did not show up this past Tuesday for their work session, Day 8 of the shutdown.
The pristine Kitchen Garden, exactly one year ago
What is standard practice in the average citizen's home garden typically does not go on in Mrs. Obama's vegucation showcase.  Mature plants are routinely socked into the beds to keep the garden looking lush and full.  These are grown in a National Park Service greenhouse that East Wing aides only half-jokingly refer to as "top secret," or donated by a certain local farmer who has offered growing advice. 

Before the shutdown, brown and yellow leaves were immediately whisked away.  Diseased or bug-infested plants were removed rather than treated.  Exactly one year ago, Mrs. Obama's garden was a pristine tableau for the annual Fall Gardens & Grounds Tour, as can be seen in the photo, above, taken on Oct. 14, 2012. 

There's even an organic vegetable farmer actually on the White House Park Service staff, hired in 2012 to ensure the garden's success.  

In addition to being used for Let's Move! and feeding the First Family, the Kitchen Garden is also used to feed Heads of State and royalty, at State Dinners and other high-profile events.  It is also visible to the thousands of tourists who flock to the South Lawn fenceline each week, to photograph the mansion.  Thus its meticulous maintenance.

But in shutdown mode, the Kitchen Garden is looking very different.
Shutdown Day 9: Tomatoes & basil
The tomato plants are now an impressive tangle of browning vines, with ripe Sungolds littering the ground beneath. 

Yellow and brown leaves now remain on crops throughout the garden, including on the potted dwarf papaya tree that sits on one side, now boasting five big green papayas.  

At this time of year, on clear days the Kitchen Garden gets full sun from about 8:00 AM until 4:30 PM, so growth in the garden has been rapid.  The stepping stone pathways can barely be seen between the bed boxes.

Shutdown Day 8: The papaya tree, with okra behind
The okra in the back of the garden has soared to over eight feet tall, but the many ready-to-harvest pods remain on the plants, as do new blossoms.  

The sweet potatoes--a favorite of President Barack Obama's, according to the First Lady--are especially abundant this autumn, said garden mastermind Kass before he was furloughed.   Mrs. Obama has proudly displayed four-pounders at past harvests, but this year's orange behemoths remain in the ground as worm food. 

Shutdown Day 6: Heritage lettuce

Most of the herbs in the garden, including the Pineapple sage and white basil, have gone to seed.  Some of the crops, such as the heirloom Tennis Ball lettuce that's now yellowing in its bed, pay homage to President Thomas Jefferson.  Perhaps America's best-known presidential gardener would have much to say about the current state of affairs in DC--as a farmer, and as a statesman astonished by partisan brinksmanship.  

A huge lemongrass plant, beloved by Executive Chef Cris Comerford for her Asian-inflected dishes, has been untouched during the shutdown, except for watering.  

Shutdown Day 8: Lemongrass with white basil
Comerford remains at her post, one of just fifteen Executive Residence staffers still on duty out of the ninety workers who conduct the daily domestic business in the six floors of the 132-room mansion. 

Right now, the many squirrels who live at the White House seem to have gotten even more aggressive with the low level of human intervention.  The squirrels are always a problem in the garden, eating the berry crop in the summer months.  But they're now kids in a candy store, gorging themselves.

The bushy-tailed residents are feasting on the ripe Sungolds on the vines, as well as on other tomatoes and peppers littering the ground, as are the many birds who call the White House home (look closely at the papaya tree photo above, and there's a squirrel at the bottom).

Shutdown Day 9: A happy squirrel
The birds include blue jays, wood thrush, mocking birds, crows, and some robins still lingering in what was until this week a very warm October.  

Still, the squirrels are also serving their country.  They've been spotted eating the volunteer mushrooms that have newly colonized the grounds. 

And about that fox that's now living in the seat of American power:  Thanks to the shutdown, groundskeepers have given up on their efforts to catch the elusive creature, who showed up to live inside the White House gates more than two weeks ago.  It has been spotted many times at dawn and dusk, according to the White House source.  

The happy visitor is not the first fox to make a home with at the White House, but may well have the longest tenure. 

Shutdown Day 8: Artichoke & squash, beans on trellis
Shutdown over by late October: White House promises autumn crops to a local soup kitchen...
Amidst the wildness, there's good news:  The White House is apparently expecting the shutdown to end before the month is out.  A portion of the Kitchen Garden crop is routinely donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a DC social services agency that offers free healthy meals to homeless and underserved residents.

Miriam's President and CEO Scott Schenkelberg on Thursday told Obama Foodorama that he'd just been advised by one of the First Lady's aides to expect a delivery of Kitchen Garden vegetables "at the end of the harvest season," sometime in late October.  That means one thing:  The shutdown will be over.  

Miriam's last received a White House vegetable delivery in midsummer, Schenkelberg said.

Shutdown Day 7: Beehive gets nailed by sprinklers
Some garden elements have not been impacted by the shutdown.  Bees are still flying in and out of the beehive that sits beside Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, located under sheltering trees.  Installed at Mrs. Obama's behest in 2009, the hive is the first to ever be on the grounds, and is strapped to its base so it doesn't blow over when President Obama takes off and lands in Marine One.  

The strapping also helps the hive resist the force of the water from the automated sprinklers, which hit it directly.

The furloughed Yosses takes care of the beehive when Beekeeper-in-Chief Charlie Brandts is not available.  But Brandts is not on furlough: He retired last year after close to three decades as a White House carpenter, and still manages the hive on a volunteer basis.

Shutdown Day 5: A camera with a motion detector
The shutdown is another historic chapter in the history of the Obama White House food initiatives.  The wild action in the Kitchen Garden will eventually be a footnote, but it will also be recorded for posterity by the cameras hidden in the bushes alongside the garden beds, which film the crop rows 24/7.

The First Lady's plot, which the East Wing says had a start-up cost of less than $200 for seeds and other amendments, has grown "thousands of pounds" of food in the last four years, according to Kass.

Bounty from the garden and beehive are also given as gifts, as happened most recently when Mrs. Obama hosted a luncheon in Harlem for UN spouses.  The First Lady's hostess gift for her guests included lemon verbena tea satchets from herbs grown in the garden over the summer, and tiny pots of White House honey. 

With rain predicted for DC through the weekend, things will only get wilder in Mrs. Obama's garden before they get better, unless the shutdown ends immediately.  Perhaps White House staff will be creating some future hostess gifts that include mushrooms, weeds, and dead leaves, or making holiday ornaments with the wormy crops.  

That's not so far fetched.  In years past, wood from an historic White House tree felled in a 2010 storm was used to make a gift box for HRH Charles, Prince of Wales.  And dried plants from the Kitchen Garden have been used as ornaments in the First Lady's winter holiday decor scheme.

Shutdown Day 8: Click to enlarge
White House Fall Garden & Grounds Tours are currently cancelled...
The national outcry over the shutdown of America's 401 National Park Service sites, especially the World War II Memorial on the National Mall where aged veterans last week ignored shutdown directives and rolled their wheelchairs through Park Service barricades--has not gone on regarding the White House. 

That's because The People's House was closed to the public on March 9th of this year, when officials cancelled all public tours, citing "staffing reductions resulting from sequestration."  The outrage over that closure already made headlines months ago. 

But despite the cancellation of indoor tours, the 2012 White House Fall Garden & Grounds Tours, when citizens are allowed to roam the South Lawn on self-guided walks, went on.  This year's event was previously scheduled for next weekend, the White House source says.  Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden would have been included on that tour, but the very popular event won't happen unless Congress pulls off a quick miracle.  And perhaps not even then.

President Obama on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday had separate closed-door meetings with the various Democratic and Republican House and Senate caucuses, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is at last showing signs of willingness to work out an agreement to end the shutdown crisis.

Shutdown Day 9: The North Lawn
During their visits to the White House, the President's embattled Congressional guests were surrounded by more examples of shutdown impact.  As is the case for all the monuments around DC, White House groundskeepers are not allowed to mow the grass.  Clover, buttercups and weeds have sprouted in between the unraked leaf litter on both the South and North Lawns.  Brown leaves are filling the driveways on both sides of the mansion. 

Unlike Chris Cox, an industrious South Carolina resident who took matters into his own hands and mowed the grass at the Lincoln Memorial, regular folks are not allowed on the White House grounds to help out.  That's an intervention that could result in a stint in the federal pen.

*CLICK HERE for links to all Kitchen Garden posts 

*CLICK HERE for links to all shutdown posts


Shutdown Day 8: Tourists ignored the sign at the EEOB, part of the WH campus
*Mrs. Obama did not host a Fall garden harvest event in 2012, because the general election was weeks away, and she was out on the campaign trail stumping for her husband's reelection.  In 2011, the Fall harvest was on Oct. 5th, and featured the first-ever Let's Move! tweetup, as the White House moved into a new era of social media usage.

Mrs. Obama's 2010 Fall harvest with school kids was on Oct. 20th, and her 2009 harvest was on October 29.  It was the first Fall harvest for the garden

*Photos and text by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama, except for 2012 garden photo; that's by Lawrence Jackson/White House