The Edible White House Lawn

by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

During the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, First Lady Edith Wilson grazed her sheep on the White House lawn. This made eminently good sense for several reasons. If you’ve never raised sheep, let me count the ways.

Sheep keep the lawn neat. Nature’s lawnmowers, they eat the grass down to a uniform level, not high enough to make it look unkempt, nor low enough for it to burn. Unlike some other grazing animals I could mention, sheep don’t dig up the turf. Their manure, the inevitable byproduct of grazing, doesn’t burn the grass and is an immediate source of nutrients. So grazing sheep enhance the area, they don’t harm it. And you can walk where sheep graze without keeping your eyes on the ground. If you step on something untoward, it will be a cluster of tiny pellets. You won’t sink in up to your ankles, and you’re likely to walk the stuff off your shoe soles in the next few steps you take.

Since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden, as far as I know the White House grounds have been off-limits to agriculture. (I’ll be grateful if you know otherwise. Facts and sources are welcome in the Comments below.) Now a group of garden enthusiasts is trying to change that. Eat the View, a project of Kitchen Gardeners International, wants people to turn unproductive lawns into vegetable gardens – starting with the White House.

“Eat the View” is a campaign to plant healthy, edible landscapes in high-impact, high visibility places, whether it’s the “First Lawn” or the lawn in front of your child’s school.

After you watch the video

sign the petition, addressed to 2008’s presidential candidates, urging that an organic vegetable garden be planted on the White House lawn. The idea is that part of the produce be used for meals prepared by the White House kitchen, and the rest donated to a local food pantry. The petition declares

The White House is “America’s House” and should set a positive example for the country and the world. The new President would not be breaking with tradition, but returning to it (the White House has had vegetable gardens before) and showing how we can meet global challenges such as climate change, food security, and fossil fuel dependence.

Is this a neat idea, or what? It reminds me of my family’s victory garden when I was growing up during World War II. I’ll tell you more about that some day. Just as a tease, I’ll tell you now that I’m still growing the kind of tomatoes we grew then – Brandywines. Luscious, prolific heirloom tomatoes. You can save seeds from year to year and they’ll grow just fine. (No, I’m not growing our tomatoes from seeds descended from the World War II crop. That would make a great story, but this isn’t the place where I write fiction.)

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3 Responses to “The Edible White House Lawn”

  1. Another worthy online petition!  I’m on my way to sign and hope others do likewise.  The Victory Gardens of years gone by had so much meaning and now with prices through the roof, and many traditions lost to our too hectic schedules, it’s high time that “America’s House” sets the best example to all that gardening is more than a hobby, it’s a statement preserving our health, freedom and a happy existence.  Oh wait, somebody said that better more than two hundred years ago — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness seems to ring a bell!

    Miryam, some of us would love to read about your family’s Victory Garden.

  2. […] I wrote last July about planting a garden on the White House lawn I mentioned that a group of garden enthusiasts at Kitchen Gardeners International is trying to get […]

  3.  I tried talking with Roger Doiron about the problems with his proposal, and when I started hitting the points, he shut down our conversation.
    We here in DC have concerns with some very UNGREEN parts of his plan, as well as other points.  He runs from them.  Here is what needs to be discussed and brought to attention:
    First, the typical American family does not have 1 acre to use.   I support the idea of the Obamas having a garden proportionate to what any family might have.  Something that Michele and the girls could actually go out and enjoy and not pose a security risk to themselves.   NOT 1 acre.  ANY Master Gardener tells a newbie to start small.   Going from none to 1 acre is not reflective of what Americans can do.
    Second, proposals include having school children tend the garden.  It sounds sweet, but school buses leave huge carbon footprints.  And, DC schools cannot be expected to tend the garden.  Besides, when the garden is at its peak, the kids are on summer vacation.
    Third, lets be honest.  Little kids hands have germs!  They cough into them, wipe their noses on them.  I don’t mind having my kids pick our veggies and WE eat them, but I don’t think it is wise for the Obamas to be eating veggies touched by hundreds of hands. 
    Forth, lets be realistic.  Even if adult volunteers came in and worked the garden, those veggies will likely never make it into the White House  because it would be a huge security risk.  They can screen the volunteers all they want, but all it will take is one crazy person to sneak in a small amount of a lethal substance to dump into the soil or on a plant.  
    Fifth, Roger thinks the 13 landscaping staff can handle this project without volunteers.  They are already working full time.  There will need to be additional staff brought in who have been screened with all the background checks.  Gardeners, not landscapers.  And, the kitchen will need a couple of extra people to preserve food or prep it to go to the soup kitchens here in DC.  We estimate around $500,000/year it will cost.  NOT GREEN.  It is so not the right message to send to the American people to pay someone to run a garden. 
    We have so many organic farmers here in Maryland within a short drive to the White House.  I wish these farmers were supported and their products used for all the large dinners at the White House, and the Obamas have a typical garden, not Roger’s idea.  I want the message to be reasonable and realistic.  A garden that ANY American can plant and take care of themselves. 
    Finally…all these people ranting and chanting about having the White House lawn turned into a garden won’t step up.  NOT ONE SINGLE ONE OF THEM ARE WILLING TO MOVE THEIR FAMILIES TO DC TO COME AND TAKE CARE OF IT!  They run their mouths, they want their 5 minutes of fame in the media, but they won’t do the dirty work, literally. 

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