Our beloved local food icon, Alice Waters — she of Chez Panisse and now champion of the US Slow Food Movement — came out today with a great idea. She wants Obama to appoint a “Kitchen Cabinet“. A real Kitchen Cabinet, food specialists such as herself and food writers Ruth Reichl and Michael Bauer, to advise the administration on local, organic and sustainable food practices. Central to her idea is that Obama should have a Victory Garden on the grounds of the White House. What a great idea! We already know we’re in the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression, we’re in a war that’s lasted longer than WW II, we’re looking at the need for WPA-style work programs to get the country rolling again. We might as well go completely retro. And nothing would say WW II Redux better than a Victory Garden.
All kidding aside, those Victory Gardens really worked. More than 20 million Americans planted them, even if they were just tub gardens on city stoops. Cities designated plots of land as community gardens, as San Francisco did with Golden Gate Park. Even Eleanor Roosevelt planted one on the White House grounds. So there is precedent. Estimates say more than 40 percent of all fresh vegetables consumed on the US home-front came from Victory Gardens. That’s major. Think of the savings in fossil fuel for all those vegetables NOT trucked to stores. Think of the consumer spending dollars saved. Dollars that we can now spend on new American cars, maybe, for a grassroots bailout of Detroit.
With Obama leading us, we could go, in one harvest season, from selfish ME Generation to the New Greatest Generation — battling obesity and clawing our way out of economic ruin one carrot at a time.
Full disclosure: I’m not entirely objective here. I want to throw my cowboy hat in the ring for that kitchen cabinet. No, I don’t know as much about food as Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl and Michael Bauer. But I do have some unique qualifications they can’t bring.
I’ve planted my own organic garden AND BEEN SUCCESSFUL despite a deplorable record with houseplants and a general cluelessness about gardening.
To clinch that position, I’ll even offer these free tips now:
1. Go ahead and read all those gardening books. Scare yourself with all the diseases and pests that will ensure your plants never reach maturity. Then throw those books away and just put some seeds in the ground. I discovered most of what I needed to know was printed on the back of the seed packet. Everything sprouted, everything matured, everything tasted great. At least in a climate as good as Sonoma’s you can know next to nothing and still get something. You’ve got gardeners at the White House, so, even without my climate, you’ll have an edge.
2. Before you throw away all those books, pay attention to crop rotation. It’s the one thing I did figure out and it seems to work pretty well. It’s a simple concept. Whatever a particular crop takes out of the soil, follow it with a crop that puts that thing back in. If that seems too hard, just follow every crop with fava beans. You can eat the harvest. Or plow the whole plant back into the ground for green compost. But the compost plan robs you of all the Hannibal Lector impersonations you can do over a dish of fava beans.
3. Plant only foods you really like. I’m telling you: don’t fear failure, fear success. In my experience, whatever you plant, you’ll get loads and loads and loads of it. The time to find out you don’t really like zucchini is NOT when you have a monster vine producing sixteen plants a day.
4. In the beginning, plant things that grow ABOVE GROUND. I might do carrots and potatoes next year, but for my first year, I wanted to see everything as it grew and matured. It’s hard enough to figure out when something obvious like a tomato or corn is ripe. Trying to figure out the ripeness of something under dirt would be just too hard. Think instant gratification (or as instant as a garden provides which is more like “two month gratification”.)
5. DO pinch back your tomatoes. I didn’t take this advice and, from six seedlings, I got a Sumatran jungle of tomato plants. Seriously, my tomato stand is so dense there are lemurs in there. I can’t even get my arm through the thicket to get the tomatoes at the back. The foxes and squirrels are getting those. And maybe the lemurs.
6. Plant corn. Corn is loads of fun. And you’ll never buy an ear that tastes better than the ear you take from your own garden. Just be prepared to eat it every day for six weeks. That’s the bounty we got from only six stalks.
7. Ignore all the old crusty gardener types who drone on and on about the never-ending battles with weeds. Three words for you: Raised Beds. Mulch. I never saw a weed.
8. Accept a certain level of critter predation. Squirrels and foxes were the raiders of our garden. There isn’t really a practical way to keep them out. Chill out about it. Think of it as Mother Nature levying a “property tax” on your garden.
9. Keep a list of vegetable-loving friends. I know you are going to ignore my warning about the dangers of success. And soon you’ll find yourself with buckets of tomatoes, piles of corn and bushels of zucchini that you can’t possibly eat. The thought of seeing something you grew go bad is going to be too painful. Unload it on your friends. Mostly, they’ll be too polite to say “No”.
10. Embrace composting, the high-tech way. This is no place to go cheap. The crusty gardener types will go on and on about making homemade composting piles with burlap sacks and pieces of twine. Spend the dough and get some of those cylindrical composters. And be prepared to spend. The plastic ones don’t hold up. You want steel, you want smell control, you want critter-proof. Place your composting very, very far away from any place you might want to stroll with world leaders. Trust me on this.
So Obama, call me! I can pack up my gardening fork and be there for the Spring thaw in Washington. I can’t afford any “pay for play” to get this position — although I know you would never ask for it — but I can sweeten the offer with a few bottles of the latest vintage from Two Terrier Vineyards. Yeah, growing grapes for wine counts as well. After all, what’s a victory without something to celebrate with. I’ll tell you all about how we did it.