"American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America" is full of spectacular photos showing the garden every step of the way, from planting to harvest.
By Henry Homeyer -- Journal Gardening Columnist
I recently was reorganizing my gardening books and came across a great book by Michelle Obama: "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America" (Crown Publishers, 2012, $30 in hardback). I must have gotten it when it came out, but never read it until now. It's a wonderful book, and every library should own it. Not only is it a good gardening book, it is a look into the life and character of Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama grew up in Chicago and never had the chance to garden as a child or young adult. But as a mom, she knew she wanted her children to eat fresh, organic food whenever possible. When she and the family moved into the White House she had the opportunity to have a garden. With the help from fifth graders at nearby Bancroft Elementary School, Michelle Obama created a vegetable and herb garden. They also got help from National Park Service staff, a professional farmer, and the staff of the White House, especially the cooks. Their garden thrived and the food was not only eaten by the Obamas, but shared with the children who helped plant it, and with a local homeless shelter called Miriam's Kitchen.
This book is more than a feel-good story. Yes, a third of the food went to the homeless shelter. And yes, low-income children got to work in the garden and eat the results of their labor. But it also tells the story of how to create a garden, starting with removing the sod. It's full of useful gardening information. It is full of spectacular photos showing the gardens every step of the way, from planting to harvest. It has diagrams and layouts of the gardens. It explains the importance of getting a soil test before planting. And it has recipes for using (and knowing when to pick and how to store) things like bok choi or cauliflower, which most of the Bancroft Elementary students had never encountered.
Like most beginning gardeners, Michelle Obama had doubts: "What if the seeds or seedlings were not set in correctly and we ended up with empty beds? What if we couldn't control the weeds? I worried about the weather ...; What if the plants didn't grow? And what if, after all this effort, the food that did grow didn't taste good?" But her fears were unfounded, and the garden was a huge success. The book includes profiles of others who worked in the garden with her and really gave full credit to everyone who helped, taking none for herself. And the book includes vignettes and photos of many community gardens around the country. I particularly liked a section on a container garden in Houston, Texas. The Houston Parks Department donated 34 huge planting containers that were installed on a stone patio in front of a high-rise office building. Each floor got one or more of these waist-high containers and a choice of vegetables to plant. Office workers took turns watering and weeding - and taking home the lettuce, okra, tomatoes and more.
As most of you know, Michelle Obama has been a supporter of nutritious diets and active lifestyles for children as a way to be healthy and reduce obesity. This garden, which she calls a community garden, is part of that effort. The book also profiles others - some well-known athletes, some ordinary citizens - who are doing things that support her goals. I loved a picture of 400 kids in purple T-shirts doing jumping jacks on the South Lawn with her in an effort to break a record for the Guinness World Records. And they did, more than 300,000 people participated at the same time around the country.
Not everyone can have a garden, or even pots on a patio. The first lady spent time in the book lauding farmers' markets, too. Fresh, local food is good food. She pointed out that Thomas Jefferson had started the first farmers' market in Washington, D.C. (and that he also had a kitchen garden at the White House). So she lobbied city officials and got approval for a farmers' market near the White House. I haven't tried any of the recipes in this book, but they look very good. Her corn soup made with fresh corn and thyme looks great. I shall try it next summer. And the spinach pie seems like a winner. So as I bundle up to go outside on a cold January day, I like to think back to summer and my own vegetable garden. I like going to my freezer to extract bags of kale and squash for making my own soup. And I enjoy sitting by the fire and reading about other fine gardens. I think you would like Michelle Obama's book. I did.
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