On March 20, 2009, I was like any other hopeful gardener with a pot out on the windowsill or a small plot by the back door. I was nervously watching the sky. Would it freeze? Would it snow? Would it rain? I had spent two months settling into a new house in a new city. My girls had started a new school; my husband, a new job. My mother had just moved in upstairs. And now I was embarking on something I had never attempted before: starting a garden.
But this was not going to be just any garden — it would be a very public garden. Cameras would be trained on its beds, and questions would be asked about what we had planted and why we had planted it. The garden was also being planted on a historic landscape: the South Lawn of the White House. Here even the tomatoes and beans would have a view of the towering Washington Monument.
When I first arrived in Washington, I wasn't even sure that we could plant a garden. I didn't know whether we would be allowed to change the landscaping on the White House grounds, or whether the soil would be fertile enough, or whether there would be enough sunlight. And I had hardly any gardening experience, so I didn't even really know how to go about planting a garden in the first place. But one thing I did know was that I wanted this garden to be more than just a plot of land growing vegetables on the White House lawn. I wanted it to be the starting point for something bigger. As both a mother and a first lady, I was alarmed by reports of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and the dire consequences for our children's health. And I hoped this garden would help begin a conversation about this issue — a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children.
I also knew that I wanted this new White House garden to be a "learning garden," a place where people could have a hands-on experience of working the soil and children who have never seen a plant sprout could put down seeds and seedlings that would take root. And I wanted them to come back for the harvest, to be able to see and taste the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors.
So in 2009, on a chilly and windy, but thankfully sunny, first day of spring, I joined twenty-three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C., with shovels, rakes, pitchforks, and a few wheelbarrows to break ground for the White House Kitchen Garden. Twenty days later, we were ready to plant. We put in lettuce and peas, spinach and broccoli, kale and collard greens. And for days after that, I would look at the freshly turned soil and wonder to myself, is anything growing?
How Our Gardens Can Help
Some of the changes we've seen in kids' lives over the years are inevitable. Times change, and we can't turn back the clock to the days when the vegetable truck rolled down the street (although there are some twenty-first century vegetable trucks on a few of our city streets today). But regardless of how the world may change around us, we still have the power to make good choices about what we feed our families. And gardens across the country are playing a vital role in that process.
So I had high hopes for those tiny seeds and seedlings going into the grounds of the White House on that spring morning back in 2009. I knew that growing a garden wouldn't be easy. As farmers can tell you, too much or too little rain, a bad freeze, or a storm at just the wrong time can ruin a crop in a few hours or even a few minutes. Some things that get planted just won't grow, and others grow far too well, taking over the garden. But whatever detours or bumps in the road we would face, I was determined that this garden would succeed.
Fortunately, it did. The seeds took root; the plants grew and produced all kinds of fruits and vegetables; and each new season in our garden brought new gifts and lessons. Spring was a time for new beginnings, when we would plant the seeds of what we hoped to harvest for the rest of the year. Summer was a season of rapid, often breathtaking growth, with plants shooting up and new fruits and vegetables ripening every day. The bounty of fall taught us how, by investing ourselves—our time, energy, and love—we were able to fulfill the promise of spring and share our harvest with others. During the winter, we learned that with a little imagination and a lot of hard work, we could extend the life of our garden beyond what we ever thought possible.
And over the past three years, our White House Kitchen Garden has bloomed into so much more. It's helped us start a new conversation about the food we eat and how it affects our children's health. It's helped us raise awareness about our crisis of childhood obesity and the threat it poses to our children's future. And it led to the creation of Let's Move!, a nationwide initiative to solve this problem so our children can grow up healthy.
This book tells that story. In it you'll learn about how we designed and planted our garden and all the children, volunteers, and staff members who plant, tend, and harvest it. We also provide tips on how to start your own garden and how to prepare and store the fruits and vegetables you grow and buy. And we include original recipes from the White House chefs to help you put them to good use preparing fresh, delicious meals and snacks for yourself and your family.
But the purpose of this book is not simply to share our own story. Our White House Kitchen Garden is just one of thousands of gardens across this country, each with a story worth telling. In my hometown of Chicago, there's a World War II victory garden that still blooms today. In Houston, Texas, there's a garden adjacent to a downtown building where office workers tend to okra, squash, and tomatoes planted in containers on the concrete sidewalk. Teachers, parents, and students have started school gardens. Neighborhood gardeners are growing crops for local food banks. And people from all walks of life and every sector of our society are coming together and using gardens — and the food they grow and lessons they teach — to build a healthier future for our children.
It is my hope that our garden's story — and the stories of gardens across America — will inspire families, schools, and communities to try their own hand at gardening and enjoy all the gifts of health, discovery, and connection a garden can bring.
All across this great country of ours, something truly special is taking root. And that is the story I want to tell in this book: the story of how, together, in gardens large and small, we have begun to grow a healthier nation.
Reprinted from American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama. Copyright 2012 by the National Park Foundation. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.