Late last week, Michelle Obama and a group of schoolkids planted spinach, lettuce, herbs, and berries in the White House's vegetable garden. What a perfect time to publish an interview with Roger Dorion, without whom I think it's safe to say that there would be no such garden. Dorion is the force behind the group Eat the View (an offshoot of Kitchen Gardeners International), which since its launch in February 2008 gathered 100,000 signatures on a petition urging a White House garden. In that same time, countless others have been inspired to transform part of their personal lawn, city hall lawn, park, or other public space into beautiful edible landscapes.
In his Sparks in the Soil interview, Doiron shares his thoughts on the meaning of gardening, how to convince an institution (school, house of worship, government) to start a garden, and more. Read on, and be ready to say, "Yes we can!"
What first made you think about suggesting a White House vegetable garden be planted in the first 100 days of the Obama administration?
My goal and that of Kitchen Gardeners International is to encourage more people to grow some of their own food. I decided at the beginning of 2008 that one of the best ways of doing that was to recruit a high-profile “spokesfamily” and landscape to the cause and I could dream of anything bigger or more exciting than the First Family and the First Lawn.
What gave you hope that achieving this goal was possible?
Gardeners, as you know, are optimistic people. We know that wonderful, big things can emerge from the smallest of seeds. I was also hopeful because I knew that the White House had been home to kitchen gardens in the past and that we’d be able to use the past to build a bridge to the future.
What have you learned about how institutions (government, schools, houses of worship) react to an idea like, "let's plant a vegetable garden on our lawn?"
Our culture is changing. If you had proposed this a few years back, you probably would have received some blank stares because awareness of food, health, and environmental issues was limited to a small subset of the population. As this knowledge becomes more mainstream and as we have more examples of groups that have done this, it becomes much easier to make the case.
What is the first thing an interested person should say to their pastor, rabbi, or priest to convince them to plant a congregational garden?
I would start by saying that we have a moral obligation to eat and live responsibly on this planet and to make sure that all members of society have access to healthy, fresh foods. Kitchen gardens, to me, are the best way of democratizing the local foods movement which until now has been out of reach for many members of society who can’t afford to shop in farmers markets or eat in the trendy new restaurants.
I’ve been really inspired by gardens people are growing in cities around the world, on balconies, rooftops, and in vacant lots. There’s a huge new garden going into the middle of the municipal complex of Flint, Michigan. As for unusual places for a garden, there were a couple of young guys who were so inspired by the idea of replanting a garden at the White House that they bought a funky, upside-down school bus, planted a garden on top, and drove across the country and back.
Michelle Obama has been outspoken already about the virtues of eating fresh, local food. What kind of impact has her message had so far?
She’s just getting warmed up, and she’s already having an enormous impact at home and abroad. As you know, she just recently returned from Europe. Although the international press corps was mostly interested in her clothes, the world leaders she met were asking her questions about the garden. I wouldn’t be surprised if see the White House garden ripple-effect, already underway in the US, ripple across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
What is the single piece of White House food history that you wish more Americans knew? That the West Wing used to be a greenhouse? That Jimmy Carter tended a White House herb garden?
I’m not sure if there’s one thing in particular, but rather that the latest chapter that the Obamas are adding to the White House’s history and our country’s history is grounded in our past.
What is your idea of the perfect world--does everyone subsist entirely on their own produce? Is every lawn turned into a garden?
No, I like wine, coffee and chocolate too much to propose that! My vision for a healthy, delicious and sustainable world is one where we grow what we can grow, produce the food we can produce, as close to home as possible and buy-in what we can’t in a more informed and conscious way. It doesn’t mean saying no to all imported goods, but it means spending a bit more time (and perhaps money) in choosing ones that have been produced in an environmentally and socially responsible way. In my perfect world, millions of new healthy gardens would be planted many of them on lawns, but that doesn’t mean every lawn needs to be ripped out. We’ve held onto some lawn (organic) in our yard because grass grows effortlessly in my naturally wet part of the world and it provides a nice playing surface for my sons. That said, there are many other lawns that just don’t make sense and deserve a rethink.
Do you find any personal spiritual meaning in growing food, or in teaching others to do so?
I do. I find peace and connectedness in the garden, comfort in knowing where my food comes from and joy in being able to share it with my family and others.
What's your favorite piece of produce?
I don’t have a favorite, but look forward to the different things that each season has to offer. In my garden at the moment, we’re enjoying the sweetest, tastiest parsnips you could imagine.