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Flash in the pan: The plots thicken

—Ari LeVaux

When Michelle Obama broke ground for her eleven-hundred-square-foot garden on the White House lawn, the shockwaves were felt around the world. On her recent trip overseas, most of the press focused on the First Lady’s fashion statements. World leaders, she said upon her return, wanted to discuss the statement her garden was making.

“Every single person from Prince Charles on down—they were excited we were planting this garden,” Obama told the fifth-grade students who helped her seed it.

Reactions at home have run the gamut, from elation in foodie circles to Big Ag’s revulsion at Michelle’s garden’s organic status. Meanwhile, the First Garden has spurred a race among the gardening faithful to plant flags on other high-profile plots and lay claim to various other gardening firsts, like so many first ascents up mountain tops.

“I’m beyond satisfied,” says Roger Doiron, founding director of Kitchen Gardeners International (http://www.kitchengardeners.org). In early 2008, Doiron organized an initiative, dubbed “Eat the View,” to gather signatures encouraging the next first family to replace a section of the White House lawn with a vegetable garden. Worldwide, more than one hundred thousand people signed on.

While not certified organic, the First Garden is billed as organic in practice—and that’s a dangerous precedent to be amplifying, according to the Mid America CropLife Association (MACA), which represents agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Crop Protection. Following the announcement of Michelle Obama’s garden, MACA sent the First Lady a letter expressing concern that no chemicals will be used to help the crops grow, and fretting that consumers might get the wrong impression about “conventionally” grown food.

After sending the letter to Obama, MACA forwarded it to organization supporters, one of whom forwarded it Jill Richardson of the La Vida Locavore blog (http://www.lavidalocavore.org/diary/1309/). The leaked letter came prefaced with the following introductory note:

“Did you hear the news? The White House is planning to have an “organic” garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama’s [sic] and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I [Bonnie McCarvel] shudder.”

There were probably more shudders in the big-chem corner when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack celebrated Earth Day by announcing plans for a thirteen-hundred-square-foot organic garden—USDA-certified, of course—to be installed in the National Mall.

As the First Garden’s ripples continue to spread, plans for me-too governmental gardens are popping up like weeds. Maryland First Lady Katie O’Malley is planning a garden at the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis. Maria Shriver, first lady of California, has plans for an organic garden in Sacramento’s Capitol Park come May. A group of Vermont gardeners calling themselves the Association for the Planting of edible Public Landscapes for Everyone (APPLE) has designs on the State House lawn in Montpelier.

APPLE members aren’t hiding the fact that they’re fast-tracking the initial planting of their 280-square-foot garden in an attempt to make their patch the nation’s first statehouse vegetable garden. “[We] tried to beat the Obamas to the punch, but second place is nothing to sneeze at!” wrote APPLE member Scott Sawyer on the Transition Vermont blog (http://transitionvermont.ning.com).

While this farms race is run, it’s worth noting that several state leaders have had vegetable gardens at their official residences for years. Maine Governor John Baldacci has been tending a home garden at the governor’s mansion for years. Former Ohio First Lady Hope Taft put in a garden at the governor’s residence in 2001. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal inherited predecessor Kathleen Blanco’s garden. Also pre-dating the Obamas’ garden is the Victory Garden planted at San Francisco City Hall last summer.

While the vegetable garden in front of Baltimore’s City Hall has yet to be planted, Mayor Sheila Dixon is quick to point out that the plot was being planned before the White House garden was announced. “We are not copying!” she emphasized, pointing out that her garden, at two thousand square feet, will be almost twice as large as the Obamas‘.

Doiron, the widely acknowledged force behind the clamor for the White House garden, is now shifting gears. He doesn’t plan to organize any more calls for gardens. Now, he sees a growing need to support the many similar efforts now underway worldwide. He’s excited to cheer them on, offer whatever advice he can, and help publicize their efforts.

“There’s a petition drive to get the government of Georgia to start a garden; there’s a large garden going into the middle of Flint, Michigan’s municipal complex, could be as large as three acres; day before yesterday, a garden went in in front of the town hall in Kingston, New York. We’ve been contacted by groups in Texas, the United Kingdom, Australia…”

Once these gardens are put in, he says, they’ll begin generating a different kind of buzz as the gardens are maintained and harvested.

Michelle Obama promised that her entire family will help with the weeding “whether they like it or not.” If true, this promises to create more than photo ops the likes of which we’ve never seen. Soon we may begin hearing about revelations reached and decisions made while crouching in the garden rows, because President Obama is soon to discover something that farmers and gardeners have known forever: There’s something about gardening that stimulates the intellect, and does more for a conversation than the strongest cup of coffee.

It may not be long until members of the president’s staff are summoned to the garden to help pull weeds, like it or not. Not because the weeds are getting out of control, but because gardens are where some of mankind’s greatest brainstorming sessions take root. And when we start hearing about the results of these garden sessions, the First Garden’s ripples will start to grow into waves.

Q: What are your thoughts on growing potatoes in old tires?
—Drive-through Gardener (DG)

A: What DG is referring to is a method of potato cultivation by which spuds are planted in the earth, and as they grow, a tower of tires is built around them. Each time a tire is added, it is filled with dirt or straw, effectively burying nearly the entire plant except for the top few inches. This effectively keeps raising the ground level from the perspective of the plant. The buried portion turns into roots and starts growing potatoes. By the end of the season, you will have a normal-sized potato plant sitting on top of your stack of tires, and four to six feet of spud-bearing roots within the stack.

This technique is known to produce phenomenal results, and some gardeners have boasted in excess of one hundred pounds from a single stack of tires. I’m not a fan of doing this, however, because there are all kinds of toxins that can be leached out by the acidic ph of soil and by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, including heavy metals, zinc, arsenic, creosote, and, as tire technology continues to evolve, who knows what else? There are zillions of different types of tires out there designed for all kinds of conditions and vehicles. And while there are many criteria considered in tire design, being food safe isn’t one of them.

Instead, I’d recommend taking some four-foot horse fence or some-such, and bending it into a tube. Plant potatoes in the ground, put the fence tube over them, and add straw as they grow. This way you get the upward mobility you’re seeking, plus, as an added bonus, the plant can send branches out the sides of the tube through the rectangle mesh. This means more leaves for the plant, which means more photosynthesis, and more potatoes.

Ari LeVaux lives in Placitas, where he writes Flash in the Pan, a nationally syndicated food column.


Today’s decorating trends:

—Patsy King, Design Details

“Less is More”

  • less “stuff” in general
  • strong organic influences
  • a more streamlined approach to furnishings
  • simplicity in decorating
  • “paring down” is popular
  • focus on quality, not quantity
  • group collections for greater impact
  • let architectural elements be the focal —beams, bancos, pillars, wood ceilings, etc.
  • combine contemporary with antiques
  • emphasize texture and natural materials

“Trends” — in the Kitchen

  • copper and bronze finishes are replacing stainless steel
  • darker wood finishes
  • farmhouse style sinks
  • butler pantries and wine cellars
  • outdoor kitchens
  • warming drawers
  • eco friendly materials such as bamboo cabinetry, tiles made from recycled glass and cork flooring

Research taken from Phoenix Home & Garden magazine


Making the most of your mulch

—Angie’s List

For many homeowners, getting the yard in shape for spring means laying down fresh mulch in the garden beds. Mulching is one of the simplest and most beneficial practices you can use in the garden. It enriches and protects the soil, and helps provide a better growing environment. In fact, a well-designed landscape can add seven to fourteen percent to a home’s value.

Why mulch:

  • It prevents weeds.
  • It protects soil from erosion.
  • It maintains a more even soil temperature.
  • It provides a nice look to the garden.
  • Laying mulch can save you money because it holds in water and keeps you from watering your flowers as often during the summer.

Types of mulch:

Mulches can either be organic such as glass clippings/bark chips, or inorganic, such as stones, brick chips, and plastic.

Organic mulches, including those with grass clippings, straw, bark chips, and similar materials improve soil by adding nutrients as they decompose and encouraging the gardener’s best friend—earthworms.

Inorganic mulches are the kind made of stones, brick chips, and plastic. These do a good job of holding moisture and blocking weeds. They don’t add any fertility to the soil, but they don’t decompose and require replacing as often as organic mulches. Rubber mulch is popular for playground areas.

There are various types of mulch available. The big trend right now is dyed mulch to match your landscaping. Red, black, and brown are popular.

How to tell if mulch is good quality:

Is it free of pests? How does it smell? Good mulch smells like freshly cut wood or has the earthy smell of a good garden soil.

Things to consider:

  • Think about how much work you actually want to do. You may only want to hire someone to deliver the mulch, or you may want to hire someone to spread the mulch.
  • Does the company deliver the mulch or are you responsible for pick-up? How is the delivery charge calculated? Is it by material, weight, or location distance? Request a delivery quote in writing.

Compare prices. Call around to three other mulch companies to compare rates.

Angie’s List is where thousands of consumers share their ratings and reviews on local service providers in more than 425 different categories.

Read Angie’s blog at http://www.angiehicksblog.com.


Five home repairs you can’t afford to put off

—Angie’s List

The harsh reality of the current real estate market is prompting many homeowners to stay put and repair instead of relocate.

Even if a big-ticket remodeling project isn’t in the cards right now, you can still save money by staying on top of regular maintenance items and eliminate the need for costly repairs down the road.

Here’s our top five list of what you can’t afford to put off this year:

Change your air filters. HVAC experts estimate that sixty percent of all service calls are the result of dirty filters. Changing air filters regularly (every month or so), especially if you have shedding pets or kids frequently running in and out, can save you up to $100 each year in energy costs.

Repair leaky faucets and running toilets. Doing so could save hundreds of dollars per year on your water bill. And don’t neglect your sump pump. Check the batteries and update the appliance every few years. A flooded basement will cause thousands of dollars in damages, not to mention the loss of personal possessions.

Check the caulking around your tub and shower for moisture penetration, which can lead to mold. Bath fixtures can avoid premature replacement if the tile surface is kept watertight, and the subsurface, usually drywall, remains dry.

Inspect electrical cords and outlets for signs of distortion, discoloration, or cracks in the insulation, and hire an electrician to replace tired outlets that no longer hold a plug. A defective receptacle, light switch, or fixture replaced during a scheduled visit will save you hundreds of dollars over an emergency repair.

Weatherproof windows and doors. These are the two areas with the largest amount of air transfer in both cold and hot weather. Use a digital thermometer to check the seal quality and inspect the caulking for areas that have cracked or shrunken, which will allow water to damage siding and floors. Once sealed, use a programmable thermostat to help regulate air temperature, which could save you up to ten percent on your monthly energy bill.

 

     

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