Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Hey, Mrs. Michelle Obama, How do you like me now?"

(Garden Update: December, 08

One of the reasons I have been remiss in keeping my hand in with postings is that I have been busy trying to extend our gardening season by installing a hoop house, or high tunnel, or plastic-covered greenhouse. It’s my first time, so I’ve been a little excited and nervous…)

Garden Update: November, 09:

Here it is a year since we installed the hoop house, and elected our new First Lady into office. Or House, if you prefer. (And let’s not kid ourselves: We were voting for Michelle, as much as for Senator Obama.)

It’s been a busy year, both here on Mt. Hunger Road, and in Washington, D,C., a year in which much has been learned, and endured, and a year in which much has been taken as inspiration in our pursuits. If the First Lady can bring the focus and conversation to bear on our collective vulnerability to the weaknesses of our food supply, I believe much good will come of it. Toward this end I think it important to examine our individual wants and expectations from our food supply.

Not only do I want vegetables particular to the needs of our culinary mission at the restaurant. I want to be less vulnerable to any hiccups in the supply chain (from field maladies, weather-related challenges, and transport SNAFUs) that might deny me access to produce. I want to know what is being done to my food before it reaches me. And I want to grow some of what we need myself. Working in the garden pays us back in so many ways beyond just helping us control our costs in our restaurant. It also provides unbeatable freshness, flavor and nutritional value.

Last year it was too late to sow new crops inside the hoop house in time for a proper winter harvest. We were just trying to get the thing up, covered and closed in, and we had to make do with the escarole and radicchio that remained from the summer season, which happened to have been sown on that site. But that was a small harvest and soon exhausted, and so we had to buy greens through the darkest part of the winter, until newly sown greens finally came up beginning in March, just in time for April vacation. At least by the time we re-opened to start the long season at the beginning of May, there were arugula, curly endive and new baby radicchio ready to be cut, and I had to start propping the door of the hoop house open for the day to keep the crop from overheating. And then the rains began…

Well, Madame First Lady (will I ever be able to address you as gardener to gardener?) this year it’s going to be different. (Ha Ha! Isn’t every year?) We’ve learned a lot, we’ve talked to some gardeners who know much more than we do (thanks Kevin, the brothers at Fable Farm, Eliot Coleman), and we’ve done some reading. We managed to overhaul the interior of the hoop house, build cold frames to protect the greens during the coldest periods, and sow in time so that we will have things ready to harvest by the time the scarcity of daylight brings growth to a screeching halt. We even had the tomatoes inside, so even though the summer was cool and wet, they did ripen (right up into October), and avoided the blight which so devastated tomato and potato crops in this region. (I finally pulled the plants out on October 12. Ripening had slowed dramatically, and the low nighttime temperatures were starting to damage the fruit. But we were able to use only our own tomatoes at Pane e Salute all the way through October until vacation.) There is now newly sprouting spinach under the plastic of the cold frame, where the tomatoes once sprawled in all their bushy and disorganised glory.

So Madame First Lady, if you would like to swing by for a cup of tea to be taken in the sun of the hoop house this winter, there is a little space with two chairs and a table, where we can talk about your plans for the winter garden at the White House, what to sow, soil amendment (no congressional or state votes needed, and no doubt the most productive use of BS ever seen in D.C.!), where to source starts and seeds, President Obama’s and the girls’ salad habits, and how best to promote the expansion of the conversation about our food, a conversation our country so much needs to continue. What will it mean to Americans to see the White House growing food? The implications could be tremendous, especially when you produce “too much”, and you have to give away the excess to neighbors and visitors, one of the great pleasures and purposes of having a garden, when one is blessed by the space to do so.

-- Caleb

(In the photos: 1st and 2nd photos, construction of the high tunnel in October ’08; 3rd, 4th and 5th photos, November 2, ’09. The boxes of radicchio di Treviso, escarole (bionda a cuore pieno and bubikopf), arugula Sylvetta, and curly endive (Romanesca da taglio), and (far left box) frisee; curly endive close up, ready to be cut for salad; Spinach has just sprouted under the plastic in the right-hand box.)

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