V for Vegetable
Getting down and dirty in modern victory gardens, the return of an American legacy.
PHOTOGRAPHY Kirsten Shultz
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“Even though our growing season is short, we have great success,” thanks to our long summer days, Smith said. “We grow tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli and artichokes—yes, artichokes.” Smith grows them all in a potager, or kitchen garden, where flowers are intermixed with vegetables and herbs for a more aesthetic approach to the farmyard look of a vegetable plot. Smith also found that perennial vegetables like lettuce, arugula and spinach have reseeded and crop up each spring alongside her perennial flowers.
“To me, there is no greater pastime than strolling through the garden in the evening to harvest something fresh for supper,” she said.
In the spring of 2008, first lady michelle Obama called on the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt and planted a new vegetable garden on the White House south lawn. She invited a class of fifth graders from the nearby Washington, D.C., Bancroft Elementary School to help her dig the 1,100-square-foot plot, right next to Sasha and Malia’s swing set. Within about a month, this symbolic garden, the first on the White House grounds since Roosevelt’s prototype, was producing fresh food for the First Family and guests.
Though our country is engaged in two wars, Obama’s was not a wartime sacrifice. Instead, the First Lady explained the garden as a logical complement to her larger initiative against childhood obesity, which she called a public health crisis. The facts bear her out. According to a July 2009 report by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, more than 30 percent of children are obese in thirty states. In Idaho, the eleventh least overweight state, 27 percent of children and teens are obese.
The White House vegetable garden is a demonstrable tool for teaching kids about locally grown fruits and vegetables; students from Bancroft Elementary also helped with planting, harvesting and cooking the produce. For the Obamas, the garden doesn’t seem so much a hobby as a stand against the edible ills of modern America. But political action in this case may be less an attempt to dictate policy than to keep up with a surging social movement. According to the Garden Writers Association Foundation, a 2008 national survey found that vegetable gardens are on an upward trend nationwide. Reasons stated include the poor economy, concerns about food safety and an urge to reconnect with the land.
Though the White House is loathe to focus on the ongoing recession, it’s no accident that many are also returning to victory gardening during difficult economic times. Growing plants from seeds or seedlings is a less costly way to eat fresh produce, and eating your own food, even in small amounts, is a small investment that pays big dividends in health, sustainability and household budgets.
In the Wood River Valley, residents and chefs are finding ways to coax gourmet options from small plots. A community-supported garden run by Sego Restaurant, a locavore gourmet eatery in Ketchum, will supply chef Taite Pearson with fresh produce from within walking distance this summer. In Hailey, Chris Kastner, owner of CK’s Real Food, picks squash blossoms, berries and vegetables from the simple plantings in the alley behind his south-Valley foodie institution. And in Bellevue, The Mountain School planted an expansive victory garden to feed its preschoolers each day and connect them, even at a very young age, to the food they eat.
Just south of Ketchum, Matt Gershater and Whitney McNees enjoy the fruits of their labor at a hugely productive garden they started with the help of friends and some seeds imported from James Reed’s Onsen Farms. (Reed was a co-founding producer of Idaho’s Bounty, a member-supported online farmers market.) McNees’ and Gershater’s circular garden is expansive and ambitious. The unique design, resembling a sort of photosynthetic pie chart, was plotted according to plant color and sun angle. The north and south quadrants were seeded with greens—spinach, Swiss chard, bok choy and arugula. The east and west quadrants were planted red and spicy—fiery peppers, beets and pungent herbs.
McNees said the garden fed about six people, give or take, three meals a day for three months. “It was amazing. It was a huge bonding experience,” she said. “I noticed a difference in my energy and the way I felt. It was good raw food that came from our hands. We put a lot of love in it.”
With vegetable gardening, the wood River Valley is a paradoxical pioneer. Our isolated mountain community, undeniably dependent on outside food, embraces a movement based on local sustainability and independence. But for the individuals involved, these gardens are about small victories that mean big things.
Now in her second season of vegetable gardening, Hailey-resident Manon Gaudreau said her path to improved health and happiness followed a connection with the Earth. She took a gardening class at the College of Southern Idaho in Hailey and joined the Valley Victory Gardeners. She chose a small grassy area in her backyard, covered it with dead leaves and cardboard and added layers of soil from her compost bin.
“I was stunned by the difference in flavor between freshly picked heirloom vegetables and what I used to buy from the grocery store, even if it was organic,” she said.
But there’s something more to it, an intangible that plays to our nurturing instincts. Like building a responsible home or raising a loving family, a garden is about building something up rather than tearing it down—and doing so in a sustainable way.