Excerpt: 'American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America,' By Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama describes some of her worries and successes with the White House Kitchen Garden in this excerpt from "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America."  

The beautifully photographed book includes recipes and commentary from the White House chefs, and a series of how-to guides for gardens of all sizes, offered by the White House's master gardeners and other experts.  Gardeners from across the nation also tell the stories about their school and community projects.

The book was published in the US on May 29, 2012. 

Mrs. Obama writes:

"By 20 March, 2009, I was like any other hopeful gardener with a pot out on the windowsill or a small plot by the back door. I was nervously watching the sky. Would it freeze? Would it snow? Would it rain? I had spent two months settling into a new house in a new city. My girls had started a new school; my husband, a new job. My mother had just moved in upstairs. And now I was embarking on something I had never attempted before: starting a garden.  

I first had the idea to plant vegetables at the White House in my kitchen back in Chicago. It was early in the presidential primary season. I had been thinking about how the food my family ate affected our health. And as I was putting dinner on the table that night, I thought to myself that if something amazing happened, if my husband actually won, that planting a garden at the White House – a garden where children could learn about growing and preparing fresh, nutritious food – could be one small way to get started.

But this was not going to be just any garden. Here even the tomatoes and beans would have a view of the towering Washington Monument. But one thing I knew was that I wanted this garden to be more than just a plot of land. I wanted it to be the starting point for something bigger. I was alarmed by reports of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and the dire consequences for our children's health. And I hoped this garden would help begin a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children. I also knew that I wanted this White House garden to be a "learning garden", a place where people could have a hands-on experience of working the soil, and children who have never seen a plant sprout could put down seeds and seedlings that would take root.

I particularly wanted to include local kids who had never dreamed of visiting the White House despite living in the same city. I didn't know if they'd like getting their hands dirty or how they would respond upon encountering plump, wriggling earthworms in the soil. But kids are innately curious, and despite their reputation for being less than enthusiastic about vegetables, they are surprisingly willing to try new things.

We started with a group of students from elementary school. The kids were broken into small groups, and each group was paired with an adult: me, one of the White House chefs, or a special guest. On that day – and many days since – we discovered that our experience with children in the garden is about much more than just planting seeds and harvesting vegetables. Invariably, as we bend down and dig in the soil with the children, we start talking – about our lives and theirs. We've found that kids often want to sit by the adults and confide in us. They're eager to learn and be useful, and they thrive on knowing that grown-ups want their help and want to hear about what they're thinking and feeling. We are all down in the dirt. Anyone present can help dig. There is no hierarchy, no boss, and no winner. It's fine to drop a few extra seeds into a freshly dug hole or even be short a few – as long as you cover them and water them well, a plant will probably sprout. I've always believed that kids learn the most when they're least afraid of making mistakes and they have the support they need to try, and fail, and try again. I want them to think: it's a plant, it's dirt, so don't be afraid; you can't ruin anything here, there isn't anything that can't be redone.

Each year, we've witnessed the impact of our approach on the lives of the kids who participate. As Cierra Beatty, a fifth-grader, told me, "I like to garden because of the delicious food you grow. But I also like the garden because of how you can work together with other people on something fun." In the following months, Cierra and her classmates would return to see their plants grow and to harvest what they had put in the ground. They discovered that, as Carlos Aguilar, another fifth-grader, put it, "The sharing of good food has made us want to share good feelings."

In the Kitchen Garden, harvest day often turns into a treasure hunt. Eager children – and grown-ups – can hardly wait to see what we have grown. On planting day, the kids learned how to sow seeds and how to remove a delicate seedling. Months later, when the kids pull squash from the vines or twist off a ripe tomato or dig a sweet potato out of the ground, they see what those tiny seeds and seedlings have become.

Harvest day is a time of discovery. When a child pulls a root from the ground, at first it may not look like anything. But then, all of a sudden, when the dirt is brushed off, it's a vegetable they recognise – a sweet potato or a radish. Whenever we invite kids to help us harvest the garden, I'm struck by their eagerness, diligence and focus. I'll never forget the day when we hosted pre-school age kids in the garden for the very first time. Two of the little girls were so excited to be part of the harvest that they didn't just pull the peppers off the plants; they pulled out the entire pepper plant. They didn't just pull off a herb stem; they pulled the whole herb out of the ground, roots and all. At first we tried to stop them, but those two were so focused and engaged that we just laughed and let them have at it. Some day I hope they'll look back and laugh at how they tried to make a clean sweep of the vegetable beds at the White House.

By 2010, we had two harvests under our belt, and we had enjoyed success cooking with the kids. But we decided we wanted to kick things up a notch by serving the food raw, fresh from the garden. I have to admit, we were a little worried the kids would take one bite of a freshly rinsed veggie and really not like it – or that they wouldn't be willing to try it at all.

The moment of truth arrived when we set out the platters of fresh broccoli, spinach, peas and cauliflower. The kids gathered around, as did the press. At that moment, one 10-year-old girl approached the table and took not just one piece of raw cauliflower, not just a handful of it – she actually picked up the whole platter and carried it over to the picnic benches, where she sat down and started stuffing the florets into her mouth until her cheeks bulged.

Chef Sam Kass approached her, worried that something was wrong. But she looked up at him, beaming with pride, and said with her mouth full, "This is so great. What is it?" Sam jokes that it is the first time he ever had to ask a child to stop eating her vegetables (we wanted everyone to get a taste!).

So often, gardens start with so little – a few neighbours who want to reclaim an empty plot, a family that wants to put healthier meals on the table, a school that wants to teach kids how their food is grown. Whether it's a few plants in the backyard or on the windowsill, a small garden near the town centre, or a vast tract of land with crops as far as the eye can see, year after year, season after season, gardens bring individuals and communities together. They provide fresh, nutritious food for our families. They inspire and engage our children, teaching them the value of hard work and teamwork and showing them just how delicious food can taste when it's fresh from the vine.

For me, planting a garden was a way to help start a national conversation about the health of our children. It's an issue I often think about as my family sits down for dinner. Barack, Malia, Sasha and I  eat together pretty much every night at 6.30pm. Even if Barack is travelling, he always tries to make it back home in time for dinner. Many nights, as I look at my children, I think of my hopes for them – and for all our children. Whether it's sitting down for that family dinner, growing a tomato out on the stoop, or just taking our kids for a walk in the park, we all have a role to play."


Reprinted from American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama. Copyright © 2012 by the National Park Foundation. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.