Op-ed for the The Guardian (UK), March 25, 2009
Has one vegetable garden ever generated so much excitement or debate? A few details about the new White House vegetable garden caught my attention.
It is 1,100 square feet. This is a garden sized for a family. In my experience of removing front lawns and planting Edible Estate prototype gardens across the country, the Obama garden is about the size of the average American front lawn. Most Americans should be able to imagine themselves planting something about this size in front of their house over a weekend with the help of some friends and neighbours. Of course I would have preferred that they remove the entire South Lawn of the White House. I imagine a combination of fruit tree orchards, wild berry patches and edible flower and grass meadows. But since this new first family garden should be a model to inspire every American family, perhaps a modest 1,100 square feet is the best way to start the revolution.
There will be tomatillos and cilantro, but no beets. The Obamas love Mexican food, and Barack does not like beets. This is a garden planted for the personal tastes of the family that will be eating from it. It is not just a pretty garden, or an empty symbol, but a place for a family to grow the food that they like to eat, on the land that is around them. They have selected 55 varieties of vegetables and herbs according to their tastes, and every American family can inspect that list and imagine what they would plant instead. Where are the tomatoes? Why so much spinach? Can I grow blueberries where I live? The lawns surrounding our homes are all the same, in denial of our diverse climates and cultures. Neighbourhood streets lined with edible gardens like the Obamas’ would all be different, celebrating our diverse tastes.
It will be visible from E Street. Will tourists linger at the South Lawn fence hoping to catch a glimpse of Sasha and Malia weeding? We will all be able to watch it grow through the seasons and evolve over the years. This is a vegetable and herb garden in front of the house, and meant to be seen. Since the late 1940s the sterile industrial landscape of the lawn has come to dominate our streets. This divisive and repressive aesthetic has been sold to us as the only acceptable surface to present to our neighbours. But our ideas of beauty are always shifting, and soon the front lawn will be considered an ugly vestige of an ignorant time. Why did they water, weed, mow, fertilise and pollute for a ceremonial space they never even used? With the Obamas giving us an organic vegetable garden to look at, we are taking steps toward a more thoughtful, beautiful, healthy and productive landscape.
Fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary School helped plant it. Many American children today do not see evidence that food comes out of the ground or experience the pleasure of eating food fresh from plants. Instead their diet is causing epidemic childhood illness. The introduction of a food-producing garden into their early lives is our best hope for changing the situation in a meaningful way. In my on-the-street garden-planting experiences from Austin to London, it is always the children who are the first ones on the scene, and the most excited to help out. They tend to be the least sceptical, and the most hopeful about the future prospects for the garden. We should have a garden like the Obamas’ everywhere there are children.
A beekeeper will tend two hives for honey, and ladybugs and praying mantises will help control harmful bugs. Fully sanctioned and welcome critters at the White House! I think this is perhaps more exciting than the garden itself. We know that the lawn is essentially ecological genocide. Everything but those precious blades of grass must die in the name of that luxurious green carpet. Pesticides indiscriminately decimate the bugs that are pests, and any other form of life that gets in the way. An organic garden is not an island, even if it is surrounded by a lawn. It is encouraging to see this acknowledged with the welcoming of these partner animals that will make pollination, pest control and the production of food possible without chemicals.
Planting beds will be fertilised with White House compost and crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay. I love local details. That’s what make gardens special, and lawns boring. So the thought of crab meal from the local bay coming to the South Lawn is a thrilling development. The rest of us can read about that and ask what local resource we could tap into to feed our garden. Seaweed from the coast? Manure from the farm? And what about the first family compost pile? We need to see images of that, and find out where it will be located. I would advocate for a very visible and privileged location, perhaps at the ceremonial south entrance to the White House, where Barack can show off the rich pile of decomposing banana peals and coffee grinds to visiting heads of state. As any gardener knows, the compost pile is the engine of the garden, the place where yesterdays “waste” becomes tomorrows fertility. What better message for us today?
The total cost is $200. They could have planted a very elaborate and expensive garden that might have been more worthy of what we would expect in front of the White House, but I am so pleased that they planted something modest and cheap. Sales of vegetable plants and seeds are soaring along with the cost of food. Americans are rediscovering the economic benefits and perhaps even the daily pleasure of being outside and growing food where they live.Of course there are probably some buried expenses not included in the $200 price tag, and some people will argue that you need to spend a small fortune and most of your time on such a garden. But an important message has been sent: Here is something anyone should be able to afford to do at home.
Is this too much hyperbole for one little garden? Am I placing too much significance on such a simple act? In the face of trillion-dollar deficits and billion-dollar bailouts, perhaps it is exactly the modesty of the gesture that makes this message so welcome right now.
– Fritz Haeg, 2008