White House Gardens

Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

Gardening on the grounds of the White House is again in the national spotlight. Last year Michelle Obama planted the White House’s first organic garden and installed beehives on the South Lawn to supply organic produce and honey to the First Family, for state dinners and other official gatherings, and for Washington, D.C.’s homeless shelter centers. The garden is reported to have yielded a thousand pounds of food crops. The White House organic garden -- the first garden on the grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden -- quickly became the nation's most high-profile plot.

However, this highly-publicized effort to grow a garden is nothing new in Washington. John Quincy Adams developed the first flower garden on the White House grounds in 1825. In 1835, Andrew Jackson created the White House orangery, a green house for growing citrus fruit trees and flowers.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy had the Rose Garden redesigned to serve presidential functions. He put the management of the White House grounds under the National Park Service, where it remains today. The Rose Garden is probably the most famous plot on the grounds, with outdoor ceremonies and celebrations based there routinely.

In 1969, Lady Bird Johnson created the first children’s garden at the White House. And yes, the White House continues to lead the movement today.

One of the most memorable gardens at the White House was the Victory Garden installed during World War II. It served as an example for the entire nation. When the United States Department of Agriculture asked citizens to put in "victory gardens" during the war years, they responded by planting about 20 million of them. Families bought 315,000 pressure cookers in 1943 to help preserve the food from their victory gardens.

In addition to indirectly aiding the war effort, these gardens were also considered a morale booster, in that gardeners could feel empowered by their contribution of labor and rewarded by the produce grown. Victory gardens became a part of daily life on the home front.

It was emphasized to those Americans that the produce from their gardens would help to lower the price of vegetables to feed the troops, thus saving money that could be spent elsewhere on the military: "Our food is fighting," one US poster read. In Britain the slogan "Dig for Victory" was especially meaningful, as canned goods were rationed there. Fruit and vegetables harvested in American home and community plots were estimated to reach 9-10 million tons, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables at the time. Gardens have united this country in times of both war and peace!

Interestingly, the US Department of Agriculture first objected to Eleanor Roosevelt’s installation of a victory garden on White House grounds, fearing that such a movement would hurt the food industry. That concern was quickly dispelled as citizens across the nation joined the cause and the mutual benefits were realized.

Since that first White House victory garden was planted, a grassroots campaign promoting such gardens has periodically sprung up in the form of new victory gardens in public spaces, victory garden websites and blogs, and most recently, petitions to renew the re-establishment of a victory garden on the White House lawn. Today, community non-profits in our area and nationwide can work toward self-sustainment, as participants consume produce gathered from food plots that were planted and maintained on-site.

Michelle Obama’s gardening efforts are representative of what we as Americans can do to inspire others to get their hands dirty and to help others help themselves. The work on the garden started a national conversation about healthy eating per Mrs. Obama; and the garden has been expanded by another 400 square feet this year.

Now the call goes out to all of us to grow some of our own food whether we have a sizeable plot of land or nothing larger than a flower planter. On a small scale, why not start with a planter box on your window sill, growing herbs for the kitchen. Another option is to begin with herbs or vegetables in larger pots just outside the back (or front) door. With a small patch of ground that gets sunlight, you’re off to a good start, for sure.

Read other articles by Kay Hinkle