Closet gardeners in the suburbs, throw off the chains of your lawn!

Planting the seeds of a revolution

by Ellen Goodman

There are now 1,100 square feet on the South Lawn of the White House being transformed into a kitchen garden. You have to admit that this gives new meaning to the idea of a “shovel-ready project.”

I tip my hat to the first lady, because my rookie season in the green league opened when my daughter was Sasha Obama’s age. It began with a lust for real tomatoes and a horror that she would grow up thinking cucumbers came full-grown, cellophane-wrapped and adorned with stickers.

I soon discovered that having a garden is like having a pet. (Obamas, beware!) You start out dreaming about puppies and you end up wielding a pooper scooper. You start out planning for snap peas and you end up pulling weeds. You also get hooked.

The image of Michelle Obama surrounded by fifth-graders digging into the White House dirt gave heart to locavores everywhere. The idea of an edible landscape was fertilized by left coast chef Alice Waters and food guru Michael Pollan. But it was Roger Doiron, a modest Zone 6 gardener — my kind of guy — and head of Kitchen Gardeners International, who began a lettuce-roots campaign last year to “Eat the View” at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Now spring has sprung and we have the first mom getting her hands dirty in the attempt to get kids to eat their vegetables.

But there is something else about the incredible edible project that also makes me do a fist bump. The Obamas aren’t just eating the view, they are eating the lawn.

What Michelle and the kids and the crew did the other day was to drive a shovel right into the heart of that American icon: the lawn. They took the most pampered lawn in America, dumped it in a wheelbarrow and carted it away. Is it possible that along with local, organic food, the First Garden can promote the thoroughly subversive idea that this symbol has seen its day?

I am not the only one who looks at lawns as a populist enemy. The low grassy surface has its roots in the English aristocracy, among folks who had so much food and land they didn’t have to farm it, they only had to display it.

Today lawns cover 40 million acres in America, making them the nation’s largest agricultural sector. They consume 270 billion gallons of water a week, or enough for 81 million acres of organic vegetables. They suck up $40 billion a year on seed, sod and chemicals, leading one historian to compare them to “a nationwide chemical experiment with homeowners as the guinea pigs.”

We mow the lawn; we fertilize it; we pesticize it; we water it, for the absurd purpose of keeping this useless patch in a deliberate state of arrested development.

“It’s actually devouring resources and polluting and happening in the most visible parts of our community — the vacant land between the house and the street,” said Fritz Haeg, creator of the Edible Estates project whose goal is to begin replacing the domestic front lawn with what he calls “full frontal gardening.”

This might be a fertile time for change. During the housing bubble, people thought of their homes as an ATM or a transient way station. If we settle into a view of home as a place we nurture ourselves, we may have a grass-roots anti-grass movement.

I don’t want to get carried away. The last White House occupants to eat the lawn were Woodrow Wilson’s sheep. As a gardener, I begin every new term with high hopes and end up with tomato hornworms.

Moreover, the White House garden is likely to produce a bumper crop of metaphors. I can imagine the first Fox News report on the cost of each leaf of spinach. I can imagine when Miriam’s Soup Kitchen begs the Obamas to stop sending over zucchini. Or the first time one of their cultivated bees stings a foreign leader.