Of all the reasons to plant a garden, free food may be the worst.

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March 24 2009 6:03 PM

The First Family's First Vegetables

Of all the reasons to plant a garden, free food may be the worst.

Michelle Obama at the groundbreaking of the White House Kitchen Garden
Michelle Obama at the groundbreaking of the White House kitchen garden

The much-discussed Obama kitchen garden seems very noble and well-intentioned (despite Michelle Obama's controversial outfit), and as an avid gardener, I was loving the whole project until I came across the following quote from an ecstatic Alice Waters:

"To have this sort of 'victory' garden, this message goes out that everyone can grow a garden and have free food." (Italics mine.)

Can someone please fire Alice Waters as the spokeswoman for vegetable gardens? What a load of chicken manure.

Gardens and the food they produce are anything but free, and to suggest otherwise is romantic pastoral nonsense. Anyone can grow herbs cheaply in a pot on the windowsill. But to produce a meaningful amount of food, you need land, a fence, beds, soil, tools, organic material, mulch, and the plants themselves. Those plants get thirsty, and even the nicest neighbors can't be counted on to irrigate the pumpkins conscientiously during your two-week vacation, and when they don't and everything withers, all you can do is say thanks and give them that bottle of Scotch anyway. I recently priced the installation of a timed irrigation system to address this very problem and the estimates ranged from $1,000 to $3,000. Fortunately, we may not need one, because we're not sure we can afford a vacation this summer.

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It takes many, many hours of toil before you harvest enough "free" eggplant and bell peppers to make a bowl of ratatouille. Though I doubt the Obamas will experience much of this, gardening is incredibly messy, ruins your hands, wears holes in the knees of your jeans, ends up costing 40 times more than you think it will, sucks up whole weekends in a single gulp, takes over your dreams, and frequently breaks your heart.

So why garden? Because gardening is one of the joys of life. Peaceful and meditative, it's work that involves nurturing lovely, colorful creatures that never talk back or defile the rug. You proceed at your own pace in your own space while listening to the birds or your iPod or your kids, and, if you're lucky and keep after the weeds, you'll end up with a stir fry. When gardening ceases to be a labor of love, you might as well stop, because there are people who do this for a living and would appreciate your patronage in these dark days. They are called farmers.

That said, there are two homegrown vegetables that really do pay off and that are mysteriously absent from the Obamas' published garden plan. Where are the tomatoes (OK, it's a fruit; whatever) and fava beans? There's no vegetable more gratifying to cultivate than the fava. Throw a handful of seeds onto a gravel heap and five minutes later, you're harvesting giant green legumes. I'm guessing that the Obamas have steered clear because of the Hannibal Lecter jokes. But tomatoes? It's too soon yet to be setting out tomatoes, so maybe they'll be rotated in. A kitchen garden without juicy summer tomatoes is no kitchen garden at all.

But, of course, this isn't really a kitchen garden. No one in the Obama family is going to be standing on the South Lawn every humid July afternoon holding a hose. By Mrs. Obama's own admission, the White House vegetable patch will be tended mostly by the White House staff—which, in my view, makes it an organic demonstration farm that just happens to be located in the Obamas' backyard.

That's wonderful. It really is. If the Obamas' example inspires one little kid to eat a pea, or one tightly wound adult to discover the therapeutic pleasures of hoeing, or one urban school to find space for a little garden, it will have been worth it. But "free" food? This admirable, enviable vegetable garden doesn't point the way to a future of free, or even affordable, organic produce for all. It's not going to fix our national obesity epidemic. (Someone needs to tell Mrs. Obama to stop talking about her daughters' weight.) And it's about as attainable for the average American as the first lady's biceps.

Jennifer Reese, former book critic for Entertainment Weekly, blogs at the Tipsy Baker. Her book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, will come out in paperback in October.

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