first garden: the white house garden and how it grew by robbin gourley

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

This brand new picture book about Michelle Obama’s world-famous White House kitchen garden is the perfect way to celebrate the growing season. Grab your trowels and dig it!

I’ve been a Robbin Gourley fan ever since I read and reviewed her first picture book, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie (Clarion, 2009), a story about Virginia chef Edna Lewis. Gourley has also published two self-illustrated cookbooks and is a proponent of the field-to-table philosophy of healthy eating. In First Garden, she describes how Mrs. Obama, the White House kitchen staff, and students from a local elementary school turned an 1100-square-foot plot of land on the South Lawn into a flourishing garden which provides fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for the First Family and staff, White House guests, and even homeless men and women at a D.C. shelter.

We see how in March 2009 they prepared the soil, planted seedlings (some of the seeds came from plants first grown two hundred years ago in Jefferson’s Monticello garden), implemented pest control, watered, nurtured and finally harvested the produce. A beehive was also installed, the first in White House history. In August, Mrs. Obama hosted a harvest party, where the student gardeners, along with White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and Assistant Chef Sam Kass, cut lettuces, picked peas and berries, prepared a salad, decorated cupcakes and enjoyed a scrumptious picnic table feast.


Over the summer, the First Garden produced more than a thousand pounds of food, and the bees produced one hundred and thirty-four pounds of honey — roughly eleven gallons.

But of course, no beets, as per President Obama’s request. ☺

Though Mrs. Obama’s kitchen garden is the main course, Gourley rounds out the menu with interesting tidbits about other White House gardens (Rose, Jackie Kennedy’s, Children’s), Presidential offspring who played on the South Lawn, as well as other historical vegetable gardens on the grounds, most notably Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden.


Especially appetizing are Gourley’s charming watercolor paintings, some presented as single or double page spreads set against stark white backgrounds, others as spot illustrations alongside infobits. The preponderance of varying shades of green evokes a sense of freshness and growth, while the splashy reds of tomatoes, apples and strawberries, the purple of eggplant, the orange of carrots, and the russet of sweet potatoes comprise a joyous visual feast, enhancing appreciation of earth’s bounty.

First Garden, which received a *starred review* from Booklist, is both informative and inspiring. It promotes respect for the land, supporting local, sustainable food sources, and celebrates the incalculable pleasures of a hands-on approach to healthy eating. There is much joy in working together and sharing the spoils. This engaging tome also features a Foreword by Alice Waters, a list of Good Reasons to Garden, 8 Recipes from the White House, and a list of Resources about U.S. Presidents/White House, Gardening, and Local Agriculture.

My favorite illustrations: the three chefs (Cris with strawberries, Bill atop a cupcake, Sam on a giant tomato); President Obama restraining Bo on a leash, title page featuring seed packet, students harvesting and preparing food in the White House kitchen. Yum!

Happy Gardening and Healthy Eating!

WH kitchen garden beds photographed in April 2011 by katieb82981/flickr

written and illustrated by Robbin Gourley
published by Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2011
Full Color Picture book for ages 6-9, 48 pp.
Cool themes: gardening and agriculture, U.S. Presidents, Michelle Obama, kitchen gardens, food, fruits, vegetables, herbs, children in the White House, community projects, cooperation, self sufficiency.


♥ Today, the White House Kitchen Garden covers 1500 square feet and consists of 34 boxed beds, three of which are devoted to Jeffersonian plantings.

♥ Mrs. Obama will be publishing her own book about the Kitchen Garden, complete with photographs, gardening tips, family recipes and stories in April 2012 (Crown Publishers/Random House). The White House has not officially endorsed Gourley’s book; neither Mrs. Obama nor others in the White House participated in its creation. Read more about Mrs. Obama’s book here.

♥ Other online reviews: Obama Foodorama, Neely’s News.

♥ Monticello’s Kitchen Garden Sampler/White House Edition contains 6 seed packs: Tennis-ball lettuce, Prickly-seeded spinach, Red Calico Lima Bean, Sesame, Globe Artichoke and Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage, and can be purchased here. Add a little living history to your own vegetable garden this year!

♥ Check out these fully illustrated cookbooks by Robbin Gourley. Her official website is here.

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

*Spreads posted by permission, text and illustrations copyright © 2011 Robbin Gourley, published by Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.


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