First-Hand Look at the First Garden

It’s larger than five combined so-called ‘micro’ apartment units in San Francisco. Yet, its importance is much more far-reaching, from the nation’s capital to your dining table.

The 1,100 square foot White House Kitchen Garden contains chili peppers, raspberries, corn, tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, squash – even a lone papaya tree – which I almost accidentally ran into. Hey, in my defense it popped out of nowhere!

I was fortunate enough to see the garden in person recently during a conference trip for food journalists. Its strategic South Lawn location faces the Washington Monument.

“[The garden] is away from where the Congressional Picnic, the Easter egg roll is and where the Marine One landing is,” said White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. “Until about 5pm, you get really great sunlight.”

Besides the noticeable humidity, the other thing that caught my eye was the vivid colors: red, green, brighter green, redder red… and orange. Yosses informed the 30 or so of us that several pumpkins even awaited picking.

Along with Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, the duo appeared relaxed, despite their seemingly almost never-ending schedules.

“The garden isn’t just for show,” says Comerford.

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Meals are centered on what’s ripe and ready to go.

The current concept was spurred, rather, first planted in March 2009 when First Lady Michelle Obama realized her two daughters, Sasha and Malia, were not getting enough daily nutrients. It’s since then started conversations nationwide about healthier eating at home – and in schools. She mentions it in her new book, ‘American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America’ (Crown Publishers, 271 pages. $30). She says she hoped the garden would start a “conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children.”

It may seem hard to believe now, but at first, Mrs. Obama and staff didn’t even know if it was possible to create a working garden. But, by the end of the year, the garden flourished – and actually yielded over 1,000 pounds of produce – with more than 3,000 pounds of vegetables served at family meals, state dinners, picnics and lunches.

The Saturday morning I visited, we inspected, photographed and even tasted tested various fruits and vegetables. With permission, I tasted small orangish-tomatoes, and then even tasted raspberries. My own failed gardens never tasted this good! They must be organic.

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“We are not certified organic,” Yosses said. “We cannot call it organic, but we are using organic methods. We don’t use pesticides. We keep records and send them to the Agriculture Department. The point of the garden isn’t to be organic. It’s about eating more vegetables and getting kids to eat vegetables.”

Volunteer chefs and area schoolchildren maintain the garden all year long – yes, it’s a four-season garden. One bed, named for Thomas Jefferson, includes seeds passed down from the third president, donated by the head gardener at Monticello.

Leftover produce is divided up among food kitchens and charities; nothing goes to waste, despite a sometimes overabundance of veggies like chili peppers, which were also flavor packed, shhhh! Between the sweet, hot and bell, “you can only eat so many peppers,” says Comerford.

Honey from a nearby, and somewhat hidden, beehive is even used to brew White House Honey Ale and Honey Porter.

“As far as we know, the White House Brown Ale is the first alcohol brewed or distilled on the White House grounds,” says assistant Chef Sam Kass on the White House website. “George Washington brewed beer and distilled whiskey at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson made wine but there’s no evidence that any beer has been brewed in the White House.”

The recipes, released by the White House, can be found here. A perfect holiday gift for the home-brewed beer obsessed fan in your family!

And yes, those bees are busy. Just the one hive alone produced more than 175 pounds of honey last year! That’s a lot of jar gifts!

(I later also learned one of the journalists was stung by a bee. While I didn’t see it actually happen, I’m happy it wasn’t me – I would have screamed like a little girl!)

But the best, and probably funniest, moment came when one woman asked about the birdhouse located near a row of trees. Without a beat, Yosses informed us it’s a camera to which then about ten of us simultaneously tilted our heads like a confused dog! “Ar?!” I would have loved to see that security tape!

Garden tours are offered in the fall and spring on a limited basis. Fall tour times have stopped, but you can always the 24-hour information line at 202-456-7041 for the latest information.

To see a ‘spring’ layout of the garden, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/garden_layout.pdf

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