Friday, October 18, 2013

First Lady's White House Kitchen Garden Gets Tended As National Park Service Staff Return

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: NPS staffer delivers tools to the garden
Photos: After 16 days of shutdown chaos and a squirrel fest in the crop rows, there is plenty to do on the historic White House campus...
Washington, DC - First Lady Michelle Obama's famous Kitchen Garden, gone wild during the 16-day government shutdown, is now getting  much-needed attention.  

Early on Thursday morning, as the government reopened and hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees returned to work, National Park Service gardeners and groundskeepers got busy cleaning up the mess on the South Lawn.

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: Inspecting the crops
There'll be plenty to do to in the days ahead in the First Lady's overgrown vegucation showcase, which she credits as the inspiration for her Let's Move! campaign.
My report last week about the weedy shutdown chaos in the crop rows made global headlines.  

In the days that followed, the Kitchen Garden, suddenly a browning symbol of a government in disarray, went into further decline, its worst state of affairs since Mrs. Obama first planted in 2009. 

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: A squirrel enjoys a pepper
The veggie-loving squirrels I described and the fox that multiple White House sources said had moved onto the historic 18-acre grounds got special notice from media. "Rogue Fox Running Amok," declared Time "Squirrels go nuts for First Lady's garden," declared New York Post. The happy squirrels are still very busy. 

The Park Service crew was already at work at the White House at 8:00 AM on Thursday morning, well before President Barack Obama's Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, in his shirt sleeves and with a No. 2 pencil tucked behind an ear, stood at the North West guard gate to personally greet some of the hundreds of Executive Office staffers returning to work. 

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: Thomas Jefferson Bed
During the shutdown, the "skeletal" NPS crew that remained on duty--including Supervisory Horticulturalist Jim Adams, who oversees the Kitchen Garden--was allowed only to water and remove trash, and nothing else.  Under Office of Management and Budget shutdown guidelines for "minimal maintenance," they were not allowed to weed the garden, or remove dead leaves from plants.  

Nor were they allowed what in the past were regular activities: Trimming, fertilizing, transplanting, and mowing the vast lawns on both sides of the mansion.  

Many of those activities went on all day Thursday, with Park Service staff zipping around the White House grounds on riding mowers, and driving small-scale backhoes, their loaders filled with collected dead leaves, gathered from both inside and outside the White House fencelines. 

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: Crops including Jefferson fig tree, l
The 1,500 square-foot Kitchen Garden extends on its plot back toward the trees behind it, and the stone walkways between the beds are not visible thanks to the major growth.  The vines for vegetables like the squash and Halloween pumpkins and the sweet potatoes--a favorite of President Obama's--are now enormous, and filled with brown and yellow leaves.  

There are more than thirty kinds of fruit and vegetable being grown, including rare heirloom and heritage varieties.  Three days of drenching rain beginning last Friday followed by warmer weather this week led to even more growth in the laden crop rows, and more fruits and vegetables falling to ruin. 

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: Okra pods
The okra that is planted in a bed behind the fruit-laden dwarf papaya tree seems to have gotten even taller--it's well above eight feet tall--and is still filled with pods and new blossoms.  It's ready for the gumbo pot.

The lettuces and other exotic salad greens--mustards, mizuna, sea kale--are very large.  So, too, is everything in the bed that pays homage to President Thomas Jefferson--artichoke, Tennis Ball lettuce, peppers.

Shutdown Day 16: A squirrel chomps a Sungold
"Let’s be clear:  There are no winners here," President Obama declared on Thursday morning during a fiery speech about the partisan brinksmanship that led to the shutdown.

Except perhaps for the squirrels who've made the Kitchen Garden their larder.  

Before the government reopened, New York magazine hailed the very busy squirrels as the winners of the Congressional standoff, dubbing the Kitchen Garden their own private "Valhalla."

It was indeed Valhalla.  As I noted last week, the squirrels were especially fond of the Sungold tomatoes dropping from the waterfall of brown vines on the plants, but they were also eating the peppers.  From the vines, and those littering the ground.  They also snacked on the volunteer mushrooms that sprang up after the rain.

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: A squirrel in the salad crops
And one squirrel seems to be either living in the cave created by the leggy, overgrown exotic salad fixings--or throwing a daily party inside the cozy walls created by the deep purple and green leaves.  

The bushy-tailed creature was in the bed constantly over the last week.  It was very territorial, repeatedly chasing other squirrels away from that particular bed.  

I can't help but speculate that there is now plenty of squirrel poop fertilizing the food that's destined for the First Family's dinner plates and those of visiting dignitaries, in a special embroidery on the Park Service's organic management of the garden.

Still, the squirrel population may have been a bit smaller after shutdown Day 12, with the arrival of a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk.   

Shutdown Day 13: Red-tailed Hawk
It has a wingspan of about four feet in flight, but easily blended in with the browning autumn leaves on the trees as it perched on branches near the Kitchen Garden to watch for prey--which includes squirrels and smaller birds.

The very large raptor lives in the area, according to a White House source, but seemed to be newly spending a lot of time roosting in trees surrounding the overgrown garden. 

I hadn't seen the hawk around the garden previously, and I regularly photograph the plot--and the special visitors, such as the Obama's puppy, Sunny.

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: Spent crops await removal
I didn't spot the elusive fox who reportedly took up residence at the White House about two weeks before the shutdown began.  Except on Twitter, where the creature--of course--had its own account within hours of making headlines: @ShutdownFox.  Huffington Post billed the fox as "The best part of the government shutdown," and offered a theory about its range, flagging a photo from Twitter user @dmnanez that showed a fox at the US Capitol. 

"I got pic last month of DC fox at the Capitol! Guess he prefers the White House," she tweeted.

Mrs. Obama typically hosts a Fall harvest party in the Kitchen Garden for school children.  She had no public events during the weeks of the shutdown, and the East Wing on Thursday did not announce any upcoming guidance.  Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass, like all other employees deemed "non-essential" during the shutdown, is now back from his furlough.   Mrs. Obama last hosted a harvest event in the Kitchen Garden in May of this year.

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: Long view after mowing
It remains to be seen if there will be an autumn plucking party--and how refurbished the garden will be.  Despite working all day at the White House on Thursday, the Park Service staffers did little to the Kitchen Garden.  By late afternoon, it stood out against the striped pattern of the newly mown grass.

While the First Lady's office has also promised a delivery of Kitchen Garden crops to Miriam's Kitchen, school children are not needed to do the harvesting.  The DC social services agency offers free healthy meals to homeless and underserved residents, and gets regular White House donations.

As previously reported, Miriam's President and CEO Scott Schenkelberg told Obama Foodorama that he'd 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.   The last White House vegetable delivery was in midsummer, Schenkelberg said.

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: North Lawn before mowing
The North Lawn of the White House also got cleaned up on Thursday after being filled with dead leaves, weeds, and overgrown grass during the shutdown.  More squirrels happily colonize that side of the White House.

It also remains to be seen if the White House will host its annual Fall Garden and Grounds Tours, which allow the public to walk around the South Lawn on self-guided tours that include a viewing area for Mrs. Obama's garden.  

Day 1, Gov't Reopens: North Lawn before mowing
Before the shutdown, the tours were scheduled for this weekend, a White House source told Obama Foodorama.

*CLICK HERE for links to all Kitchen Garden posts 

*CLICK HERE for links to all shutdown posts

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/ObamaFoodorama