Ellen Goodman / Syndicated columnist
Goodbye first lawn, hello first garden
By transforming a chunk of the South Lawn of the White House into a vegetable garden, first lady Michelle Obama is doing more than striking a blow for self-reliance and healthy eating. She's also driving a shovel into the heart of that American icon: the lawn. Is it possible that along with local, organic food, the First Garden can promote the thoroughly subversive idea that this symbol has seen its day?
BOSTON — You have to admit that this gives new meaning to the idea of a "shovel-ready project." There are now 1,100 square feet on the South Lawn of the White House being transformed into a kitchen garden. If Americans follow the first family's lead, the seed pack will become the new stimulus package. At least we'll have something to do with those pitchforks after the AIG bonus babies surrender their money.
I tip my hat to the first lady, since my own rookie season in the green league opened when my daughter was Sasha's age. It began with a lust for real tomatoes and a horror that she would grow up thinking cucumbers sprung full grown, cellophane wrapped and adorned with stickers from the supermarket womb.
I soon discovered that having a garden is like having a pet. (Obamas, beware!) You start out dreaming about puppies and you end up wielding a pooper scooper. You start out planning for snap peas and you end up pulling weeds. You also get hooked.
The image of Michelle Obama surrounded by fifth-graders digging into the White House dirt gave heart to locavores everywhere. The idea of an edible landscape was fertilized by left coast chef Alice Waters and food guru Michael Pollan. But it was Roger Doiron, a modest Zone 6 gardener — my kind of guy — and head of Kitchen Gardeners International who began a lettuce-roots campaign last year to "Eat the View" at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Now spring has sprung and we have the first mom getting her hands dirty in the attempt to get kids to eat their vegetables.
But there is something else about the incredible edible project that also makes me do a fist bump. The Obamas aren't just eating the view, they are eating the lawn.
What Michelle and the kids and the crew did the other day was to drive a shovel right into the heart of that American icon: the lawn. They literally took the most pampered lawn in America, dumped it in the wheel barrel and carted it away. All that was missing was a chorus of "This lawn is your lawn."
Is it possible that along with local, organic food, the First Garden can promote the thoroughly subversive idea that this symbol has seen its day?
I am not the only one who looks at lawns — including my own — as a populist enemy. The low grassy surface has its roots in the English aristocracy, among folks who had so much food and land they didn't have to farm it, they only had to display it.
Today, lawns cover 40 million acres, making them the largest agricultural sector in America. They consume 270 billion gallons of water a week, or enough for 81 million acres of organic vegetables. They suck up $40 billion a year on seed, sod and chemicals, leading one historian to compare them to "a nationwide chemical experiment with homeowners as the guinea pigs."
We mow the lawn, we fertilize it, we pesticize it, we water it, for the absurd purpose of keeping this useless patch in a deliberate state of arrested development.
"It's actually devouring resources and polluting and happening in the most visible parts of our community — the vacant land between the house and the street," says Fritz Haeg, creator of the Edible Estates project, whose goal is to begin replacing the domestic front lawn with what he calls "full frontal gardening."
This may be a fertile time for change. During the housing bubble, people thought of their homes as an ATM or a transient way station. If we settle into a view of home as a place we nurture ourselves, we may have a grass-roots anti-grass movement.
I don't want to get carried away. The last White House occupants to eat the lawn were Woodrow Wilson's sheep. As a gardener, I begin every new term with high hopes and end up with tomato hornworms, a creature that makes The Hungry Caterpillar look anorexic.
Moreover, the White House garden is likely to produce a bumper crop of metaphors. I can imagine the first Fox News report on the cost of each leaf of spinach. I can imagine when Miriam's Soup Kitchen begs the Obamas to stop sending over zucchini — HELP! Or the first time one of their cultivated bees stings a foreign leader.
But then again, the First Gardeners are in the first hundred days. We never did promise them a rose garden.
Ellen Goodman's column appears Friday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
2009, Washington Post Writers Group