The White House pollinator garden attracts bees, birds, and butterflies.
On sunny Fall morning in October, I headed to the White House for a gardening session. I never thought I'd wear jeans for an official appointment at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but we were invited by Michelle Obama's Let's Move team to get our hands dirty. The staffers were preparing for the final harvest and dedication of the garden, which the first lady opened early in President Obama's first term to kick off her healthy living initiative. The garden, located on the South Lawn, has transformed into a more permanent space, with tables, benches, an arbor, and an inscription stone that reads: "White House Kitchen Garden established in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama with hope of growing a healthier nation for our children."
In between shoveling, I got a chance to speak with two people who have worked closely on the project. That included Jim Adams, a supervisory horticulturist for the National Park Service who has worked at the White House for more than 15 years, and Debra Eschmeyer, the executive director of Let's Move, who also has a 22-acre farm in Ohio near the dairy farm where she grew up. In 2010, Deb started the nonprofit FoodCorps, which establishes farm-to-school programs, and she also grows 35 different fruits and vegetables on her farm for the local Ohio community. I figured, if these experts could help run a garden good enough for the first family, I should get their tips. Below are the gardening secrets they shared with me.
Basil from the White House Kitchen Garden.
- New gardeners should give basil a shot. According to Deb, "it's very prolific and it's something you can eat fresh. It's going to do well throughout the season."
- Just like with real estate, location, location, location matters. Deb says making sure you have a place with enough access to sunlight is crucial.
- Rely on quality soil, even if you have to make it yourself. Deb told me the White House makes its own compost.
- Make sure you have good amendments. No, I'm not talking about the constitutional kind. Soil amendments include things like kelp meal, chicken manure, and alfalfa meal. Deb recommends checking your local hardware story for a bag of amendments.
- Plant the right flowers. "It's really good to encourage pollinators," according to Jim. "Our pollinator garden includes plants that are pollen sources for our native pollinators on the mid-Atlantic and honey bees. We have pycnanthemum (mountain mint), flocks, black-eyed Susans, goldenrods, and asters. Things for butterflies and bees."
- Use the right plant for the right place. Jim cautions against trying to create an artificial environment.
- Don't skimp on the water. "A lot of times folks will forget," according to Deb. She has a tip: "Look at the leaf if it's wilting it's thirsty." And she subscribes to an old wives' tale: an inch of rain a week.
- Grow what you like to eat. Deb said: "Whatever items you like buying at the grocery store, you should test out. Because if you like them, you'll be more successful."
- Homegrown items make thoughtful gifts. Whether it's a bundle of tomatoes — or in the first lady's case, honey from White House bees — source all-natural gifts from your own backyard.
I got to spend a morning planting vegetables on the White House South Lawn.