After reading Michelle Obama's American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America I was left wondering what the purpose of the book is. It's not really a garden history book, and it's not a how-to on planting and maintaining a kitchen garden.
The book touches on previous gardens and gardeners at the White House, but the history of the kitchen garden seems rather condensed. She recalls having the idea for the kitchen garden before the Iowa caucuses and thinking it would be a starting point for creating a dialogue about healthy eating.Was it really that easy to get permission to tear up a portion of the lawn and plant a vegetable garden? What did the soil testing reveal? What about that toxic sludge that critics made so much noise about?
As an urban gardener myself, and a blogger that follows community gardens and urban agriculture projects, I found myself wishing that this information was better covered to help new gardeners navigate the issues of gardening on land they don't own, dealing with bureaucracies, winning over doubters, and ensuring the soil they plant in is safe.
The closest we get to how the sausage is made is the section on the beehive in the garden. We learn President Obama had concerns about a hive so close to where he plays basketball, and for Bo's safety.
A compromise was reached and the beehive was installed on what looks like stilts so it would be out of Bo's reach. This idea is rather clever because I would've just placed the beehive on a roof to keep it out of the way.
There are a lot of photos of Bo in the vegetable garden. Photos of the First Dog are second only to those of the First Lady, but there's no information on how pets and gardens can coexist. Is Bo the world's best behaved dog, or has he dug up plants, and peed on the occasional squash, and how was it handled?
Practical gardening information in the book is sparse to the point that the book is useless to someone who has been inspired by the White House Kitchen Garden to start their own.
For example, the chapter on the summer garden is six pages long and contains one paragraph of text. It's up to the reader to deduce that the plant names in the garden layout provided are different than the ones in the chapter on the spring garden.
While the photo collage of summer crops is beautiful, a simple list of what is planted at what time at the vegetable garden would’ve been helpful.
If American Grown wasn't going to tell us how the sausage was made or provide us with gardening tips -- why bother writing this book?
It wasn't until my 6-year-old nephew, who is a big fan of President Obama and the First Lady, excitedly picked up the book and leafed through it that I understood why American Grown was published.
American Grown isn't for experienced gardeners, and it isn't for those looking for gardening information. It's a love letter of sorts to the White House employees and volunteers who have nurtured the garden along, and the featured gardens across America that are helping make good, nutritious food available in communities that need it most.
It's a scrap book of the garden for those who followed the lead of the First Lady and started their own vegetable garden for the first time but haven’t seen their source of inspiration in person.
A couple of years ago I went on the garden walk by the North Lawndale Greening Committee on the west side of Chicago. I learned that the White House Vegetable Garden was seen as the reason that many, often young, African-Americans had become interested in the work the organization had been doing for decades. All of a sudden vegetable gardening was seen as something cool to do.
When the first publicity photos of the ground breaking ceremony at the garden hit the Internet I remember the snarky reaction from many gardeners and garden writers on Twitter. Similarly, many weren't too excited about the First Lady writing a gardening book-and to her credit, she doesn't pretend to be an expert and allows others to take center stage to impart their wisdom and expertise. We meet the people who care for the garden, and the chefs who elevate it from a photo op to a productive vegetable garden.
American Grown doesn't meet my expectations as a gardening or garden history book, but I admire it as a piece of propaganda.
In an election year the title could be interpreted as a response to the fringe element that continues to insist the president isn't an American. Or perhaps it's a mea culpa for Michelle Obama's infamous line from the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
Gardeners like to joke that tomatoes are the gateway plant to gardening because it is the first vegetable many of us plant. Undoubtedly fans of the First Lady will pick up the book and some may be inspired to pick up a tomato plant at their garden center. Others may find that one of the community gardens featured in the book is in their backyard and they may stop and visit it the next time they pass by.
Overall, American Grown is a great piece of garden propaganda. There's now a book written by a First lady about the most famous vegetable garden of our lifetime.
Think about what that represents and the effect that will have on many non-gardeners. Like fashion designer Ron Finley said in a video I featured recently, "Gardens build community. Period." Maybe that's what the title of American Grown ultimately references. The community we build when we plant gardens, inspire new generations to garden, and share the harvest with out neighbors.
American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America is beautifully photographed and contains sixteen recipes inspired by ingredients grown at the White House Kitchen Garden, along with information on growing healthy kids. The book retails for $30.00 and is also available in enhanced e-book format by Crown Publishers. My copy of the book was provided to me for free to review.