Last weekend I found myself standing in front of the most famous address in the US: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Washington, D.C. I didn’t actually go inside, but I was able to see something pretty amazing on the front lawn. My family and I took a tour of the White House Kitchen Garden. What an inspiration!
We walked from the East wing, down a long grassy hill, towards the garden. On our stroll we saw the small playground the President set up outside of the Oval Office so he could watch his daughters playing, and we passed a massive tent and stage that was being erected for the opening dinner of the African Leaders Summit. The staff was busy as bees, security was tight, and there we were waltzing across the lawn to go look at some vegetables. It was pretty surreal.
The garden is beautiful and this was a great time to be visiting because the summer crops were still producing. Though, if we had been there about one week later we probably could have picked some figs from the tree at the edge of the garden. That tree, like many of the plants in the garden, came from seeds Thomas Jefferson gathered and cultivated at Monticello. Despite it’s famous genetic history, the fig tree almost didn’t make it. We were told that when it was just a little sapling, barely recognizable as a tree, it disappeared. Apparently, some volunteers thought it was a weed and pulled it up and tossed it in the compost pile (yes, the White House garden has a compost pile). When the director of the garden discovered the fig tree in the compost, he plucked it out and put it back in it’s place and it has done well ever since. Seriously, I want those figs!
Okay, to be honest, I want the whole garden. It was beautiful. We walked down stone paths between raised beds spilling over with several kinds of basil, sweet potato vines, eggplants, purple peas, kale, tomatoes, zucchini, and carrots. There was even a large section panted with the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash—all looking lush and healthy. There are about 55 different types of vegetables and about half of those are heirloom varieties.
But, this is not just a vegetable garden. There were also strawberries and raspberries and the most surprising of all, a papaya tree. I’m no expert, but even I know that papayas don’t normally grow in Washington, D.C. Turning the corner quickly to go check it out, I saw behind some bushy tomato plants that this large, fruit-bearing papaya tree was in a big pot…not in the ground as I thought at first glance. It spends much of the year in a greenhouse somewhere out of sight but it was outside today in all its glory.
As we started heading back toward the White House we stopped near a raised bed that was planted specifically for pollinators. We watched some bees go about their business on the flowers, then walked about 20 feet to where they were returning with their pollen. The White House beehive, of course! Hard at work, like the White House staff, they kept buzzing about with little notice of these awestruck visitors standing and staring.
The White House Kitchen Garden provides food for the First Family as well as invited guests, and the extra produce is donated to Miriam’s Kitchen. That’s right, the White House does exactly what we’re asking you to do…share extra garden bounty with neighbors in need! This garden is also a teaching garden—a place where local school kids can come and dig in the dirt with the First Lady, learn about growing food and get excited about eating healthy. Check out what Michelle Obama had to say about AmpleHarvest.org here.
This garden is the first of it’s kind since Eleanor Roosevelt’s (very tiny) victory garden. I hope it remains here on the grounds permanently as an example to all that growing food, eating healthy, and sharing with those in need is a model that we all can adopt—in our backyards, community gardens, balconies, rooftops, and fields.
If you don’t have a league of volunteers and the help of the National Parks Service to maintain your garden, you can find tips and resources here and, as always, when you have enough to share visit www.AmpleHarvest.org/findpantry to find a food pantry near you that is desperate for fresh food to feed their clients.
To learn more about touring the White House Kitchen Garden, click here.
Here are some more pictures from our visit: