The official garden of plenty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — "Do not swat the bees," Bill Yosses said calmly to the guests who nervously eyed the flying insects. "They won't sting. They're just curious, and you're wearing the right colors."
We were standing in the direct path between the beehive and the White House Kitchen Garden. The Washington Monument stood guard to the south, the big white house anchored the north; to the west, a garden still operated in full harvest mode.
Pumpkins and melons spilled out onto the paths. Chili peppers filled the bushes. Tiny yellow tomatoes beckoned, "Pick me, pick me." So we did, with the blessing of our guide, the White House's executive pastry chef.
He and Cris Comerford, executive chef for the White House, led the way for this gaggle of food writers in town for a conference of the Association of Food Journalists.
"There is no tweeting from the White House," Yosses had told us at the guard station. "No social media, at all." So we grabbed our notebooks and did the tour the old-fashioned way, with pen, paper and cameras.
Yosses walked past the scarlet runner beans and pointed out the sea kale from seeds Thomas Jefferson brought to America. He stepped around the Texas chili peppers and when he reached the lemon verbena, plucked a few leaves. "We love to use this in the kitchen."
The White House Kitchen Garden, planted in the spring of 2009, was initiated by first lady Michelle Obama, who wanted fresh vegetables for her family meals — and something more.
"I hoped this garden would help begin a conversation about this issue (children's obesity and health) — a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children," she writes in "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America" (Crown Publishers, 271 pages, $30).
Throughout the decades, gardens had been tucked into a variety of spots at the White House, though not since Eleanor Roosevelt created her Victory Garden had a garden of this size been planned (1,100 square feet). Choosing a spot for it wasn't a quick decision. "We weren't sure we could even add a garden at first," said Yosses.
"There were lots of competing concerns. Where the garden is now has visibility from the gate (the southern boundary of the property) and great drainage. It's away from where the Easter egg roll is and where the Marine One (presidential helicopter) landing is," said Yosses. "And until 5 p.m., this area has great sunlight."
An enthusiastic crew of volunteers maintains the garden: chefs and staff, as well as schoolchildren, all overseen by the National Park Service horticulturist.
"The White House garden is not a symbol; it's a working garden," Comerford told us as we traipsed among the cornstalks and blueberry bushes. "It helps chefs remember that we need to be more seasonal. Maybe a chef wants to cook fennel, and we don't have any ripe in the garden. That means we should wait."
How much honey does the hive produce?
"This year, we had 175 pounds of honey from the one hive. We build it up to seven boxes (the box has "layers"; at present the hive has four). We use it to make beer (honey brown, ale and porter), use it in cooking and package it in gift jars to give away," said Yosses.
How many vegetables are grown?
More than 3,000 pounds of vegetables have been served since 2009 at Obama family meals, state dinners and formal lunches. About a third of the garden's produce is donated to a local organization that feeds homeless people.
Are there heirloom vegetables?
Two of the 30-plus beds in the garden use seeds from Thomas Jefferson's original garden at Monticello, his home in Virginia. These are descendants of his plants from 200 years ago, including a small fig tree.
Is there a kitchen garden on the roof?
The National Park Service, which maintains the White House grounds, uses the roof for its own purposes.
Do you have a compost system?
Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurants in New York helped set up the three-bin compost system. Leaves, grass cuttings and plants from the garden are combined in the bins, with some leftovers added from the kitchen. Meat, fat or daily products are not part of the mix, as they could attract rodents.
Will you add hens?
"Not a chance," said Yosses. "There is so much scrutiny to what we do. The garden needs to be noncontroversial." Consider the potential for headlines, giggled the journalists: "laying another egg," "pecking order" and "hanging out with the chicks."
Are you organic?
"We are not certified organic. We cannot call it organic. But we're using organic methods. We do not use pesticides. We keep records and send them to the Ag Department. But the point of the garden isn't to be organic. The garden is about eating more vegetables and getting kids to eat vegetables," said Yosses.
What do you do with leftover produce?
"Just like any garden, at times there's too much at one time. We're getting lots of peppers lately, so we're pickling them. And we give vegetables away. The last thing we want to do is waste the food," said Comerford. As for leftover vegetables at the dinner table? "The First Family eats leftovers just like any family," said Comerford.
How do you choose the vegetables to plant?
"It's Mrs. Obama's garden. She chooses. We offer a proposal of plants based on her interests and what grows in the area. She picks. If she didn't like what we offer, we change it," said Yosses.
Is there any vegetable you don't include in the garden?
"Mrs. Obama believes people have a beet gene, or not. And she does not," said Yosses.