I found a bounty of plant ideas during my recent visit to the White House Kitchen Garden in Washington, D.C.
The landscape is about 1500 square feet set into 18.5 acres of backyard. This twenty-first century version of a food garden offers ideas that gardeners can replicate in backyards across the world.
Gardeners support sharing plant ideas. For kid-gardeners, the tradition of sharing will easily work into their garden hobby, whether coming from a next-door neighbor’s backyard or from a public space like the White House Kitchen Garden.
Observing, while visiting another’s garden or from the plants grown at home, is a worthwhile skill. Kid-gardeners may want to record the exchanges of plant divisions and seeds, harvests of flowers and food, and how to share the produce.
Food Plant Ideas Descended from American History in the Kitchen Garden
The “first family’s home,” built in Washington, D. C., around 1792, has always been surrounded by a massive landscape. Today, we consider the many long-lived plants as historic as the monuments they look out onto Lafayette Park.
The twenty-first century Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn at the White House began in 2009. Mulched pathways crisscross the raised beds and are inlaid with square concrete steppers. The mulch is also “banked” up against the two-by-fours of the raised wooden edges on all sides of each bed.
A Marseilles fig tree, a descendent of a variety Thomas Jefferson grew, was one of the earliest plants offered for the new garden. While visiting Monticello, First Lady Michelle Obama received a small specimen of the Marseilles fig tree, and, in 2012, it began producing its yellow fruit.
Another fruit tree that has come full circle is the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) with far-reaching results. A specimen of the tree was grown at President Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia farm and now at the White House Kitchen Garden and is one of the plants complementing the Pollinator’s Garden.
The native pawpaw grows 20’ tall and produces fruit harvested in August through October. The pawpaw is the state fruit of Ohio, which celebrates it with an annual festival in Athens County.
The pawpaw tree offers the garden many seasons of interest, with its varied attractions: purple blooms, leaves the larvae of zebra swallowtail butterflies eat, and the fresh fruit that is ready for harvest at the end of the growing season. The pawpaw’s multi-stemmed shrub form will thrive in D.C.’s zone 7 climate; however, the tree’s cold hardiness zone range remains limited to zones 6 – 8 in North America.
Taking a tip from President George Washington who loved his orangery, a mature papaya tree is grown in a large pot and transported outdoors each summer. Living histories of vegetable plants found on the cool-season plant list include:
• The onion, ‘Walla Walla,’ which is an open pollinated variety developed by a French solider living in Washington State around 1900.
• The 1840 heirloom peas plant ‘Champion of England.’
• The lettuce plant, the ‘Brown Dutch’ is an heirloom dating back to 1731, and said to be one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites.
Vegetable and Fruit Plants in Raised Beds at the Kitchen Garden
As winter recedes and snows melt, gardeners start planting cool season vegetables; it is no different at the White House Kitchen Garden. Cool season crops thrive in cooler temperatures and then, to avoid hot summer weather, gardeners will replant similar seeds in fall.
The basis of the Kitchen Garden is a series of raised beds. The old swampy in-ground soil, un-worked for decades, proved unsatisfactory for growing food, no matter the amount of organic compost added. This spring, White House gardeners spaced out transplants and tiny plugs from greenhouses out on the beds according to each of the plant’s needs.
The White House Kitchen Garden is an organically grown garden, using integrated pest management practices. The plants grown are primarily open-pollinated varieties, many of which retain classification as heirlooms.
A few varieties like the broccoli Marathon and cabbage Red Ruby Perfection are F1 hybrids. For gardeners who want to harvest seed to save for next year’s growing season, F1 plants will not produce reliable seed that will grow true. You will find more success purchasing new seeds or transplants of F1 vegetables the following year.
The lettuce varieties picked for the Kitchen Garden is a good example of how gardeners match plant varieties to the needs of the family. At the White House, the food harvests are used in family dinners, as well as when “company” comes to visit; the leaders from other countries who visit our President, for instance.
The collection of lettuces include: the lettuce ‘Annapolis’ with a Romaine leaf, the ‘Optima’ with a butterhead, ‘Gentilina’ of an Italian variety used in mesclun mixes, and, the French heirloom lettuce ‘Continuity.’
Four types of garlic plants offer cooks in the kitchen options such as two softneck varieties, which are easier to grow and store longer, and two hardneck varieties, which have thinner skins and produce larger cloves. Nootka Rose is an heirloom and, therefore, an open pollinated type of garlic plant.
Plants with fruit ready for picking from summer to fall include apple trees, raspberry bushes, and the rhubarb heirloom ‘Victoria.’ Rhubarb plants live so long in gardens that the herbaceous perennial is often passed down from generation to generation of gardeners. It is an economical fruit to grow and, when planted with strawberries, as it is at the White House; the combination will yield years of pie and jam possibilities.
Fig plants grow at the northern edges of hardiness in Washington, D.C. But like the one from Monticello, the fruit tree remains small. It is a good fit for urban gardens and may be grown as an espalier to conserve even more room.
Attracting Pollinators to Benefit Gardens
During the White House visit, First Lady Michelle Obama announced a new Pollinator’s Garden. It will complement the beehive and plants in the landscaped beds surrounding the Kitchen Garden. The perennial plants and shrubs chosen for the new garden will encourage pollinating insects to visit, giving them nourishment and foliage to live among, as larvae of butterflies eats the leaves.
When announcing the new garden, the First Lady said that she wanted to help the bees and Monarch butterflies. The United States is part of the group of North American countries concerned with the endangered migration route of the Monarch butterfly. Yes, this one garden is primarily symbolic, but for gardeners who wish to protect the habitats of the Monarch butterfly, planting a Pollinator’s Garden is a sound first step.
The Pollinator’s Garden is a rectangular bed behind the lettuces of the Kitchen Garden. The 34 perennials and shrubs listed include the highbush blueberry bushes and the pawpaw tree, which is in a bordering plant bed.
The swamp milkweed and the butterfly weed especially favor the Monarch butterfly. Smaller versions of well-known wildflowers, like the cultivar Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe,’ are grown to conserve space in the raised bed. Though, the plants are primarily straight species, which may be more beneficial to pollinators than hybrid plants.
White House Beehive Healthy Home for Visiting Pollinators
Charlie Brandts built the beehive at the White House Kitchen Garden. He was the White House carpenter in 2009, and donated the structure and helped establish the hive. Brandts retired from the White House in 2012, but his beekeeping hobby continues and he still keeps a watch on the hive.
In a 2012 article in Washington Examiner, Brandts mused that he thought it was because of the wide-open landscape of the White House, planted with many trees, annual flowering plants and fresh water ponds that helped make the hive so successful.
He explained that in the first three years, the beehive produced 340 pounds of honey, more than what is reasonable for an average backyard hive to make. The White House uses the honey to make beer, called White House Honey Brown Ale; and offers the honey (and presumably the beer) as gifts. Like all the harvested produce, the White House uses the honey for meals, from family suppers to formal dinners.
Kid-gardeners Gain Plant Ideas from White House Kitchen Garden
The spring planting event at the Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn demonstrated that the White House will harvest a bounty of food. Kid-gardeners may grow these kinds of plants in backyards, on front lawns, or on balconies; wherever communities across America call home.
Beyond traditional vegetables and fruit grown in the food garden; herbs like oregano, chives, sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, bay leaf, and cilantro complement the space.
You can harvest your own herbs to spice up the dishes you make at home, whether your residence is the White House or Main Street, Anytown, USA.