Washington's Other Organic Garden


Photo by Daniel Fromson

To try DC Central Kitchen's house-brined pickles, click here for the recipe.

Just a couple of blocks from the Washington Monument, the air carried the ripe, green scent of tomato plants, which were nestled in planters made from salvaged oak and locust planks. Lazy strums of folk guitar echoed from a nearby farmers' market, and employees of DC Central Kitchen, a local food bank, offered passersby tastes of homemade pickles imbued with a peppery tang. All in all, it was a typical Friday afternoon at the Jamie L. Whitten Federal Building, the headquarters of the USDA.

The Whitten Building has neither been hijacked by rambunctious Slow Foodists nor relocated by scrappy MIT students to Berkeley, California. Instead, at the urging of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, this February the Department of Agriculture began transforming 1,250 square feet of barren pavement into a cluster of container gardens and raised beds called "the People's Garden." Until November, the garden was complemented each week by cheery presentations on cooking and gardening as well as a farmer's market. (Alas, it sold no People's Garden veggies, since the plot's scant harvest is donated to food banks.)

Inspired by Michelle Obama's efforts at what may soon be known as the White Homestead, the People's Garden was established in honor of Abraham Lincoln--who called the USDA "the people's department"--and it represents an organic oasis of a sort that is proliferating in Washington. A friend of mine recently spotted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plucking weeds from a similar patch near the Department of Education--a sign, she told me, that Arne Duncan is basically the coolest person ever.

The realities of mainstream food production notwithstanding, the People's Garden contains neither GMO soy nor miniature feedlots, and not even a token silo of corn syrup.

Vilsack's initiative evokes a comparable hipness, but whether it reflects a decisive shift in the currents of agricultural policy is up for debate. The realities of mainstream food production notwithstanding, the People's Garden contains neither GMO soy nor miniature feedlots, and not even a token silo of corn syrup. What it does contain is a cornucopia of vegetables, many of them heirloom varieties; soil fortified with fishmeal and organic compost; a "pollinator garden" of bee-attracting native shrubs; earth-enriching green manures including clover and buckwheat; and a bat house whose residents are charged with aiding both garden staffers and USDA volunteers with all-natural pest control. Clearly, things have changed since the early '90s--a time, Michael Pollan once wrote, when the USDA "treated organic farming with undisguised contempt." But isn't the People's Garden still just an island in a sea of USDA-subsidized corn and processed foods?

The answer, almost undoubtedly, is yes, but you have to start somewhere, and as organic kale has sprouted, so, too, have small changes in policy. In September, for example, the USDA introduced a $70 million initiative titled Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, which will set aside about $50 million to purchase local produce for public schools, fund microgrants for farmers' markets, and has established a Web site to "continue the national conversation" about sustainability. To be sure, the USDA's 2009 budget is estimated at $95 billion, and the Know Your Farmer project can seem like a single carrot hidden in a haystack. On the Friday that I visited the People's Garden, however, it was clear that just about everyone was gawking at the symbolic vegetable patch that has alighted, spaceship-like, next to the hunks of neoclassical marble that flank the National Mall.

Tourists, clutching cameras and folded umbrellas, rubbernecked. Natalee Gautam, who oversees the garden's upkeep, told me that feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and Erin Littlestar--who, along with other employees of DC Central Kitchen, was running a "Chef in the Garden Workshop" and brandishing a tray of pickles--alleged that thanks to the Obamas, Washington has been overrun by a sustainability contagion.

Contagion? I'm not sure, but as I wandered to the farmers' market to buy some local apples and striped heirloom eggplants, something green certainly seemed to be brewing. A few minutes later, a woman in a royal blue USDA polo shirt handed me fliers from the Healthy Garden Workshop Series with titles like Container Gardening and Window Boxes, Making and Using Compost, and Fall Maintenance: Preparing Your Garden for Next Season. She also thrust a free packet of Genovese basil seeds into my hands, explaining that the herb can be grown indoors year-round. It was from the Seed Savers Exchange, a leading supplier of rare and heirloom seeds, and I must admit that as I accepted the gift, I was more than a little surprised.