Green the Grounds

At the White House, it’s time to Green the View!

Whitehouse4_2

Kudos to the Eat the View project that's petitioning the Obamas to grow a Victory Garden at the White House.  Led by Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International and including Michael Pollan and the good folks at Gardeners Supply Company, Eat the View has gotten gobs of publicity for the cause, and Obama himself has said that he's read about the project (via Pollan's NYT piece).  Our prez-elect has also declared his intention to "green the White House."  Exciting stuff!

So let's take a look at the 17+ acres surrounding the White House, shall we?  Here's a blurb from the White House website:

On tours at the White House, one can see flowers such as tulips, hyacinths and chrysanthemums in the East Garden.  Plants that can be seen in the Rose Garden include magnolia trees, Katherine crab apple trees and a variety of roses.

And photos show – no surprise – thousands of bedding plants like spring bulbs and annuals.  Yeah, institutional gardening from the '50s.  And asked what changes the Bushes have made to the White House grounds, the grounds superintendent says they've added seven commemorative trees.  (Any wonder that didn't make the Evening News?) The website further reveals that there's no on-site composting, and the 8-hour job of mowing the lawn is performed twice a week.

Now just imagine what that website COULD say, as soon as a year from now, about the grounds and gardens:   

  • The tons of herbicide and petroleum-based fertilizer previously dumped on the turfgrass have been replaced with a yearly application of compost and two applications of compost tea.  This switch to organic lawn care has increased the lawn's drought-tolerance and saved thousands of gallons of water previously used to keep it green all summer. 
  • The use of pesticides in the White House gardens has been examined and drastically reduced.  Plants that required frequent spraying have been replaced with more sustainable substitutes. (Why not a Rose Garden filled with no-spray varieties?)
  • Dozens of native plants have been added to the White House gardens, which now include a Butterfly Garden and an educational Habitat Garden, all enjoyed by the Obama family and local school groups.  Birdhouses adorn many trees on the property.
  • All yard and kitchen wastes are composted on site.
  • Steps have been taken to stop runoff of rainwater into the city's already overwhelmed stormwater management system that rushes pollutants to the highly degraded Chesapeake Bay. 
  • The National Park Service is making it all run smoothly and partners with local groups to spread these practices across the District of Columbia.
  • And members of the Obama family are often seen tending their favorite White House garden, the newly installed vegetable garden.  Produce from this "Victory Garden" is used in the White House kitchen, and the garden is similar to what millions of American families could be doing in their suburban and even urban plots.

Is this a total fantasy?  I THINK NOT.  It's all doable, popular, and noncontroversial.  Unlike the greening of the building itself, with its energy efficiency ratings and endless tech-talk, these outdoor greening projects are fun, photogenic, and filled with human interest.  And after seeing Obama's "green team" choices, who can doubt they're ready to shake things up?

SPREAD THE WORD

To help bring some attention to this comprehensive vision for greening the White House grounds, I'm sending this post to all the local green groups in D.C., all of which stand ready to help in any way they can to make the transformation a big success.  As will the food, gardening, nature and environmental media nationally and worldwide.  What a platform for teaching!

You can help by grabbing the permalink passing it along, too.  Gardenbloggers especially, this is a great cause for us.

GOVERNORS HAVE VIEWS, TOO
And while we're dreaming of the White House having an environmentally responsible landscape, what about asking our governors to similarly get their acts together, landscape-wise?  Their residences are also high-profile sites that could be showcases for these much smarter (and far more beautiful) practices. 

UPDATE:  Go to Green the Grounds.org to learn about the greening of executive mansion landscapes across the U.S.

Posted by on December 16, 2008 at 5:04 am, in the category Green the Grounds.
Comments are off for this post

27 Responses to “At the White House, it’s time to Green the View!”

  1. Roger Doiron says:

    Way to go Susan! Thanks for spreading the word and projecting ourselves into the future we want for ourselves, our families, and, yes, the Obama family.

    It’s going to take a lot of gardeners to make this happen, but together we will do it!

  2. Michelle says:

    ‘Our prez-elect has also declared his intention to “green the White House.” ‘ That’s fantastic! I’m curious – where did you hear about this?

  3. Great post. Great news! I can’t wait to see the Obamas’ leadership unfold. I”m sure retrofitting or “upgrading” to a green roof on The White House is out of the question given our nation’s economic concerns, but wouldn’t that be an awesome project to undertake and promote, too?!

  4. Null says:

    Good post, I liked it. Although I HAVE seen one or two of those tree plantings by Bush make the news. I think one was an American Chestnut.

  5. susan harris says:

    Michelle, I heard Obama say it in an interview, but I forget by whom. Someone could find it. He went on to talk about energy reduction measures.
    UPDATE: See my subsequent post, which is what I discovered when I went looking for the answer to Michelle’s question.

  6. Michele Owens says:

    Growing your own dinner is hip. And so are the Obamas. It’s a perfect fit.

  7. Nikki Smith says:

    You inspired me to look more into this victory garden business. Of course, you did a much better job of outlining the Eat the View cause. I did contact Roger about the project – make sure you let him know about your post. Maybe he’ll tweet about you like he did me. :)

    http://www.whgmag.com/420-white-house-victory-garden

  8. Also–I have to thank you for that hilariously ugly photo, Susan. Could any color combination in the world be worse than that swimming pool turquoise, silver, and red?

    I say, make the White House look like Villandry and we’ll stop appearing so childish and unsophisticated in the eyes of the world.

  9. As a gardener whose focus is on edibles, medicinals and natives, I’m certainly in favor of it. However, my worry is that the White House wouldn’t go for it for security reasons. It’s a lot easier to spot people who hop the fence if they’re running across loads of open lawn than if they’re dodging between beanpoles and sunflowers. Have the folks at Eat the View considered that problem (that is, the objections that the Secret Service might have) and addressed it?

  10. I’ve never been to the White House nor have I studied its landscape architecture indepth, though I know that both Beatrix Farrand and F.L. Olmsted planned gardens for the property.
    My question is , ‘Is there currently a kitchen/ vegetable garden on the grounds ?’

    It doesn’t make sense to me to replace the current exhibition styled beds with edibles.
    I know that it can be done artistically, but if the aim is to provide food rather than aesthetics the plan is short sighted in that its function would not be fully used to its potential.
    Where’s the economy in that ?

    So back to my original question, Is there a kitchen garden on the grounds ?
    You would think that the chef of the White House would speak up forcefully for this functional amenity.
    I can’t imagine that Thomas Jefferson did not plan a vegetable garden at the White House when he was in office.
    There must be historical archives on this.

    As to the expansive lawns that surround The House, it would make proper economical and ecological sense to use both organic and BMP ( best management practices ) to manage the maintenance of the expansive lawns, especially the lawns that are heavily used for public events such as the easter egg hunt.
    ” How about a little herbicide with your chocolate egg ? ”

    And as for those totally outdated garish exhibition garden beds I say hire the White House gardener a decent Landscape Designer.
    That combination pictured above is ghastly.
    I for one would be very happy to lend my design services.
    To whom do I address my resume to ? : – )

  11. Susan Harris says:

    Michelle, good point – everything should be beautiful! For the public to see beauty AND environmental smarts would be amazing.
    I forgot to mention that one of Roger Doiron’s cooler ideas is to have a design contest for the Victory Garden, so he’s definitely thinking about beauty AND how to involve the design community nationally.

  12. Jenn says:

    One reality check:

    You’re going to have trouble with security regarding those birdhouses.

    Better to go with pruning techniques that encourage habitat use.

  13. Michelle D – I found this on Jefferson’s garden plans from White House.gov:

    >>Planning for a garden at the White House began with President Washington, who expressed a desire to plant a botanical garden. Washington purchased the land for what is now the South lawn from a tobacco planter named Davy Burns, while the North grounds originally belonged to the Pierce family. As the first President to occupy the White House, John Adams ordered the first planting of a garden.

    Thomas Jefferson then undertook a complete redesign of the garden. He started the tradition of planting trees when he planted hundreds of seedling trees, although none of Jefferson’s trees is believed to have survived to the present day. It was his idea to plant groves of trees, he picked the location for the flower garden, and fences and walls were eventually built where he had specified. In addition, Jefferson built an arc of triumph flanked by two weeping willow trees on the southeast corner of the grounds that are no longer standing….<<

    So it appears not much into edibles but more treating the ground as ceremonial and ornamental.

  14. Kathy J., thanks for reminding me–Jefferson and Washington were both gardeners. Civilized men. Rumor has it Steve Jobs is a gardener, too.

  15. Aunt Ida says:

    To air your opinion to the Obama team (about anything, including the gardens), go to http://change.gov and click on Tell Us Your Story.

    And talking about Governor’s Mansions… The Idaho GM was donated to the state by potato mogul J.R. Simplot. It’s a 35 acre plot of Kentucky bluegrass. A mile down the road is the native habitat: sagebrush steppe. We get 12″ of rain a year, so it costs $106,000 a year to water and mow (as of 2007). The Gov doesn’t live there, so the state pays him an additional $58,500 per year for living in his own home.

    Oy!

  16. Holly, Howard Co MD MasterGardener says:

    Back in 2004, we Bay-Wise Master Gardeners from Howard & Anne Arundel Counties certified the MD Governor’s (at the time, Erhlich) mansion grounds in Annapolis as meeting the criteria for being a Bay-Wise certified landscape. We had an “in” as one of our MG’s in Howard Co had a relative working for the governor who put us in contact with the head horticulturist who oversaw the landscape.I think that would be the “in” at WH, as well. Find out who is overseeing the grounds- we were actually impressed with his awareness of our “issues” – the bottom line we preach is that basically everything we do in our own backyards affects the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay. He was already implementing best practices management of the landscape, so it was a win-win for both of us- we verified they were doing things “right,” gave them several signs to display on the property saying so to public, and they got whatever political capital they chose to use. It served as a demo landscape for others- doing the right thing doesn’t mean one has an unkempt, messy landscape. I’d encourage the new admin to also incorporate more native plants in their landscape to support wildlife habitat (which we continue to lose at an alarming rate- their “wildlife” may just be insects, but the bottom of the food chain supports the rest) as well as a kitchen/victory garden. Gosh, I’m envious…they probably wouldn’t have a deer problem, would they?

  17. Barry Prince says:

    Good story! I especially like the Kitchen Gardners link.

    FYI: did you every scan one of the stories they did on the Kitchen Gardners site about yourbackyardgardner.com in Portland?

    That was really cool too. You may have discussed this already, but they were contracting with people to farm in their backyards and share the produce. A bunch of backyards equals a big farm. Sorta like what SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrical Intelligence) does with thousands of home PC users via the internet. SETI uses their PCs at night to do massive parallel processing at high speeds, something SETI itself could not afford to do if they bought all the computing power for themselves alone.

    I don’t give a hoot about SETI (I spend most days try to find intelligence on Earth), but I love the ideas of clever sharing / collaboration to produce more for everyone – especially in these dreadful deadzones of lawn.

    Thanks for your good work on the story and its extended links!

  18. I guess the Maryland governors have had a lot of ground to make up since the Donald Schafer days–1987 to 1995. His significant other, Hilda Mae Snoops, had more than twenty perfectly good cedars on the grounds cut down, which are not much more than an acre. She did have a garish fountain installed, though. Here’s a link to page 305 of a book on Google with the story of the ungreen actions: http://books.google.com/books?id=5MYmEuLpwuAC&pg=RA1-PA305&lpg=RA1-PA305&dq=%22donald+schaefer%22+fountain+mansion&source=bl&ots=ma16Vi2036&sig=QhOYoNmx4-WtaFeNWVSS7LHrdks#PRA1-PA306,M1

  19. All I can say is, it’s about time.

  20. JTP says:

    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.

  21. Susan Harris says:

    JPT, you have Roger Doiron’s “Eat the View” project confused with this one:
    http://www.thewhofarm.org/petition/
    That link is to the WHO Farm’s petition, which calls for the garden to be tended by children and people with disabilities, in fact. I don’t know of any connection between the two campaigns.

  22. kitty says:

    Great post.

    Dorky aside: I’ve always thought that if you wanted to destroy classified documents, instead of shredding, which can be undone (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_shredder#Unshredding), having them be part of a composting system wherein they are used in composting toilets or as animal bedding, would be a much more effective, offputting and permanent system.

    P.S. The White House needs egg-laying chickens to close the compost-fertility loop!

  23. kitty says:

    JPT, no need to be such a wet blanket? If there are security concerns with this plan, I’m sure the Secret Service will step in. That said, I think this plan sounds delightful and wise. I never thought about it before, but it’s true that the current White House landscape is wicked retro, and updating it with eco-friendly plantings would be amazing. The only reason to have a lawn that big in this day and age is to use it for golf.

  24. I applaud your cause and your courage. As a landscape designer I agree with you that there is more room for improvement in the white house garden.The designs are far outdated and as for your call to have editable view, replace the ornamental trees with fruit bearing ones!

  25. justso says:

    Some good points. However, your last point it not quite correct. I already live outside DC, have the skills, and would do the dirty work, and consider it an honor.

    http://www.shepherdogden.us

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