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In the shadow of the White House garden, a movement grows

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Rebecca Martin and son Charlie in front of their garden in 2008. Martin convinced the city of Kingston, N.Y., to plant a victory garden on the grounds of City Hall this spring. (Photo by Jennifer McKinley)

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Becky and Brian Johns behind City Hall, Flint, Mich., April 5, 2009. A garden will be planted there this spring. (Courtesy of Happy Family Farms)

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The Johns family at City Hall in Flint, Mich., on April 5, 2009. The Johns lobbyied successfully for a vegetable garden to be planted there this spring. (Courtesy of Happy Family Farms)

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Becky and Brian Johns at City Hall in Flint, Mich., on April 5, 2009. The Johns lobbyied successfully for a vegetable garden to be planted there this spring. (Courtesy of Happy Family Farms)

“Let a thousand cabbages bloom.”

If the loose affiliation of “victory” gardeners, “locavores” and “slow foodies” behind the successful campaign to create a vegetable garden on the White House lawn had a slogan, that might be it.

On March 20, the seed sown by Kitchen Gardeners International founder Roger Doiron bore fruit when Michelle Obama and 23 fifth-graders dug up part of the South Lawn and planted 55 kinds of vegetables from tomatillos to Thai basil.

Though proponents of locally grown, healthy and affordable food landed the highest profile endorsement on the planet in the First Lady’s gesture, Doiron’s “Eat the View” campaign is already taking root beyond Washington, D.C.

Days after Michele Obama broke ground on what might be the most talked-about garden since Eden, California’s first lady, Maria Shriver, announced that a vegetable garden would be planted at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

On Earth Day, April 22, volunteers will be digging up the lawn at Kingston City Hall in New York State to plant a “Three Sisters” garden, a Native American tradition featuring squash, corn and beans. Next month, a 1 1/2-to-2-acre vegetable garden is planned for the grounds of City Hall in Flint, Mich. Run by volunteers, it is expected to supply the cafeteria of the municipal building and local food banks.

Many of the gardens have been inspired by Doiron, who has urged people around the country to use the momentum generated by the successful White House campaign to get other high-profile gardens planted at the state and local levels. With gardeners taking up the cause in different parts of the country, “it’s got a life of its own,” Doiron says. The goal is to get people growing food “on their own,” says Doiron, so that as many Americans as possible can feed themselves in a healthy and sustainable way.

It was only six weeks ago that Brian Johns came up with the idea for the garden at City Hall in Flint. “I was incredibly impressed as well as moved at how willing our local government was to get on board with it,” says Johns, a carpenter who started his Happy Family farm a couple of years ago in Genesee County, Mich.

Now that Johns has the support of local officials, he’s looking for one final endorsement. “We are actually in communication with the White House,” he says, “trying to invite Michelle Obama to our groundbreaking ceremony. We are trying to be flexible on the date, hoping that it will work out.”

Obama’s groundbreaking also inspired Pattie Baker of Dunwoody, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, to launch georgiasgarden.blogspot.com. The site features an open letter to Mary Purdue, the state’s first lady, urging her to plant a vegetable garden on the grounds of the governor’s mansion. It also allows people to add their names to a petition.

As it turns out, the governor’s staff has been quietly growing food at the mansion for decades, according to spokeswoman Michelle Parks. This year, she adds, the goal is to make the garden fully organic.

For a cause that is about returning to older and simpler ways, the foot soldiers of the gardening movement are a tech-savvy bunch making use of the full range of the latest avenues to share ideas and get their message out.

After becoming interested in victory gardens—the movement during World War II by citizens to grow their own food and help the war effort through greater self-sufficiency—Pamela Price of San Antonio, Texas, started her own garden and blog, redwhiteandgrew.com, which promotes a revival of victory gardens.

She also has a Twitter feed with nearly 1,800 followers. Price recently tweeted the Texas first lady. Anita Perry. The governor’s mansion was firebombed last year, and Price is working to ensure that the renovations will include room for vegetables.

Jane Karotkin of the Friends of the Governors Mansion says that prior to the fire, the grounds had raised beds that grew seasonal produce including lettuces, herbs and okra. But Melanie Spencer, the first lady’s press secretary, says that with completion of the restoration years away, it’s too early to tell what the refurbished grounds will look like.

As the name of her blog implies, Price sees her work as patriotic and is quick to avoid the appearance of partisanship.

“‘Well, the Obamas put one on their White House lawn,’ is probably not going to be the most appealing argument,” she says of her budding campaign to convince the Republican Texas governor and his wife to plant a kitchen garden. Price stresses the nonpartisan nature of her campaign and notes that her Twitter followers cover the political spectrum. “I have everything from hard-core conservatives to the most liberal people you can imagine,” she says.

“This is a wonderfully American idea,” she says, “and it has the potential to be quite inclusive.”

Just as victory gardens were born of the crises of wartime, today’s advocates say they are motivated by concerns over global conflict, environmental degradation and the economic downturn.

“It’s a perfect storm,” says Rose Hayden-Smith, an agriculture historian at the University of California, Davis who also works with schools, church groups and neighborhood organizations to help them start their own gardens. Lately she says her phone has been ringing off the hook.

“You’ve had a crisis in the food system with rising prices, you’ve had a series of scares in the last couple of years relating to food,” Hayden-Smith says. Add to that concerns over childhood obesity, the environment and a hunger for richer civic life, and Hayden-Smith says communal gardens are a way for people to address all those issues.

Not all the experts think focusing on high-profile locations for gardens is the best way to grow the movement.

In a reply to Roger Doiron’s post on eattheview.com, Professor Warren Belasco, a food scholar at the American Studies Department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, offered a note of caution. “Having seen too many examples of what happens in our celebrity culture,” he wrote, “I do worry about backlash and demoralization once the spotlight disappears or the political tides change.”

There is one first lady who doesn’t need convincing. That is Karen Baldacci of Maine. Since moving in she’s restored the vegetable gardens at Blaine House, the governor’s mansion, and even put in a Victorian greenhouse where she grows food all year round.

With the difficult times the country is going through, gardening has the potential to “bring us back together as a country and as communities,” Baldacci says, “maybe we’ll start with our backyards and our gardens.”

E-mail: jge2103@columbia.edu