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Food activists urge Obamas to grow veggies at the White House

President Woodrow Wilson with his wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, in the East Garden of the White House in 1916.

Woodrow Wilson House

President Woodrow Wilson with his wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, in the East Garden of the White House in 1916.

WASHINGTON — So you just moved into your house in Washington and already strangers from afar are telling you what to do with the yard.

That might rankle you somewhat, except the property is at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. For occupants Barack Obama and his family, domestic decisions are suddenly everyone's business.

The home vegetable garden, a thing of much toil and simple pleasure, has taken on enormous political and environmental symbolism. Voices in the local-food movement have formed a chorus urging the Obamas to dig up a good chunk of the South Lawn for a garden to feed the first family and local food banks.

If Americans planted wartime victory gardens again, the argument goes, we would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable agricultural practices, feed our families with cheaper, more nutritious food and reduce obesity and disease.

"If we were to have a first family to take this on and lead by example, we would see a ripple effect across the country and across the world," said Roger Doiron, an organic gardener and food activist in Scarborough, Maine, who last year started a campaign to pressure the next president to grow veggies at the White House. He calls his petition drive Eat the View (

It will be interesting to see whether the Obamas respond to the calls. Eleanor Roosevelt installed a victory garden in 1943, and Woodrow Wilson turned the South Lawn over to grazing sheep during World War I, but most of the changes made by first families — and there have been many over the years — were for their own needs, not to play to the gallery.

Theodore Roosevelt reluctantly took down a magnificent array of greenhouses and conservatories to build the West Wing in 1902. Many presidential landscape changes had little to do with horticulture, reflecting instead the recreational interests of families that must live, work, entertain and decompress in a guarded compound.

Obama, a fitness freak, reportedly wants to install a basketball court. Bill Clinton had a jogging track constructed, Gerald Ford installed an outdoor swimming pool, and Dwight Eisenhower a putting green. Jimmy Carter, a farmer, had a treehouse built for daughter Amy, but he also asked for culinary herbs, which continue to be planted among ornamentals. Since the Clinton administration, the executive chef has been harvesting produce from a small garden on the roof.

Doiron says the White House needs a veggie garden large enough to register in the public's imagination. If it were built, he said, the ultimate size and location would have to be worked out by the various parties involved, including the Obamas and the National Park Service, whose team of approximately a dozen maintains the gardens and grounds.

President Obama encouraged us to hope, so I hope for a Victorian-style walled kitchen garden whose enclosure would provide shelter and comfort not just to the produce but to the producers as well.

Such a garden would be ideal for seasonal and perennial vegetables, herbs, berries and espaliered fruit trees, as well as cut flowers.

Of course, anything that is expensive to install and maintain will face opposition in an economic slump, never mind that it might serve first families for another century. But another difficulty in integrating a vegetable garden is that the White House environs serve various roles, including as a heliport.

The White House landscape is also an arboretum of historical and commemorative trees, and the layout derives from a plan devised in the 1930s, forming a vista to the south and using trees to frame the view of the distant Jefferson Memorial.

The garden staff is skillful and dedicated, but the predominant form of ornamental gardening involves patterns of bedding annuals that extend north to Lafayette Park. It has remained unchanged for years: red tulips bounded by grape hyacinths in the spring, to be ripped out and replaced with scarlet sage and dusty miller for the summer. Bedding mums arrive for the fall. It is like a time warp from the 1950s.

How opportune for a discussion about a vegetable garden to extend to other aspects of the White House landscape, now that a young and charismatic president has inspired so many with his promise of change. Other prominent civic landscapes have become forward-looking gardens of more natural character, interesting, ever-changing through the year and speaking to the sustainability of green spaces in urban settings.

Millennium Park in Chicago, the Obamas' hometown, is an example of thoughtful, provocative and vital municipal landscaping. A tenth of the park is occupied by the Lurie Garden, a joyful celebration of plants bounded by sculptural hedges and composed by designers with international reputations: landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, plantsman Piet Oudolf and set designer Robert Israel.

Medleys of spring bulbs give way to summer-flowering perennials and prairie grasses, culminating in a wispy fall garden that persists with the tall dried grasses of winter. It is a lovely progression of color and form and texture.

Food for thought.

Food activists urge Obamas to grow veggies at the White House 01/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 3:30am]
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