Patricia Nell Warren

White House Garden Connection #1

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | May 23, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Michelle Obama, recipes, White House

Gardeners are applauding Michelle Obama's launch of an organic vegetable plot for the First Family and White House kitchen. Hopefully it will inspire many Americans to create some healthy, home-grown, inexpensive food for themselves. But you don't need a half acre of White House lawn to pull off this magic trick. If you're a homeowner, all you need is a couple hundred square feet of sunny lawn or patio. If you rent an apartment or condo with a sunny balcony, and building rules allow, you can put together an arrangement of window boxes or pots of different sizes.

Bilerico readers might like to do the same with some nook or cranny of their home. So from time to time, I'll share stories and recipes from my own city garden. This weekend, for Memorial Day picnics, it'll be the humble cabbage...and a cole-slaw recipe that will knock your crocs off. More about that later.

In 1996, when I bought my home in Los Angeles, just three blocks north of the Wilshire Blvd. business strip, I found I had a "useless" 12' x 75' strip of brick terrace along the east side of the house, separated from the sidewalk and street by a five-foot stucco wall. There wasn't a crumb of soil. It was shade-less and hot -- not attractive for sitting or entertaining. In spite of the wall, it echoed with traffic noise, and lacked a feeling of privacy.

Getting Started

A few years later, I decided to beautify this trouble spot and create a little shade. So I planted half a dozen citrus trees in tubs. Navel orange, Myer lemon, ruby red grapefruit, Key lime, Bears lime, and a mystery lemon seedling that my brother started and gave me. Spaced along the wall, they created a nice Mediterranean effect.

Then the light bulb went on.

If I filled the spaces between the tree tubs with stepped arrangements of long window-boxes, I could stuff them with veggies and herbs. Would there be enough light? The terrace got direct sunlight only till early afternoon -- after that, the sun moved to the west side of the house, and the space was in shade. But the east wall of the house was white stucco, and reflected the California sunlight into the terrace area so strongly that the total effect might be day-long direct light. The citrus trees were certainly thriving. So veggies should thrive too.

I didn't even need a carpenter to put it together. The basic element was redwood window boxes 12" wide and 12" deep, and 3-5 feet long. First I arranged cinderblocks like bleacher risers, and positioned the long windowboxes across them, like steps in the bleachers. Here and there, I worked in some big redwood tubs, for plants with bigger root systems. When everything was in place, I filled the containers with many bags of organic topsoil from the nearby garden center. It gave me a structure that ran along three sides of the space, with an aisle down the middle where I had room to work and push a wheelbarrow and work.

Years later, my big-city garden is a leafy retreat full of magic and good eating. There's even a small table and chair in a shady nook, where I can sit with morning coffee and enjoy it. All that vegetation gives the terrace a private feel and actually absorbs some of the street noise. It looks like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and is a routine stop of every butterfly and hummingbird in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, I'm mastering the dynamics of container gardening, which are different from gardening right in the ground. A few basics: Use good well-drained soil with organic content. Water more often, especially in hot weather. Fertilize more often, because nutrients leach out of the pots quickly.

Edibles for All Seasons

Right now, on Memorial Day, as the weather gets hot, my garden is at the tail-end of winter-and-spring green stuff. We're eating the last of the spinach, kale, chard and cabbage that I planted in December. The last of the Key limes went into a Key lime pie.

Now the spring-and-fall stuff is coming on. A new set of white onions are a foot high. Pattypan squash, pumpkins, bell peppers, lemon cucumbers, Japanese eggplants, cherry tomatoes, yellow wax beans, Kentucky pole beans and yellow sweet corn are blooming and forming the first veggies. A favorite grouping is my collection of chili pepper varieties -- everything from mild Hungarians to blow-your-head-off habaneros. Some of them provide pickings year-round. All the basic cooking herbs are flourishing.

I've found that most garden vegetables will do well in large pots or window boxes, if they get the right care. But some do better than others. For example, Japanese eggplant has performed better for me than the standard varieties -- it actually fountains over the edge of the window boxes and forms its fruit dangling out in thin air. You can even grow sweet corn in containers if you fertilize the hell out of it. Corn plants are very heavy feeders. You can hand-pollinate them to make sure the ears develop fully.

Pumpkins, you say? Yup. I have a variety of dwarf pumpkin that I used for party ornaments and kept the seed. It's perfect for a city garden -- the neat viney plants grow well in the big tubs, as a "ground cover" under the citrus trees, and spill over the sides like petunias. First they go crazy with yellow-orange blooms. Then the six-inch yellowish pumpkins form slowly and are ready to eat by fall -- either as a side dish or in breads and pies. They store well, and keep till spring. I save the seeds and scatter them back on the surface of the soil in the citrus tubs. When spring comes, they germinate on their own -- and voila, more pumpkins.

Did I mention flavor? Home-grown vegetables taste very different from the supermarket monstrosities (many of them genetically-modified now) that have survived months of immersion in pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Gourmet Cole Slaw

Back to the humble cabbage. Few vegetables are more under-estimated than this one, with its track record of being overcooked, producing that awful sulphur smell that can linger in your house for hours.

I always plant a dozen cabbage seedlings in December, and they last me through spring. To do well in window boxes, they need a lot of water and fertilizer (steer manure or some type of organic fertilizer), and develop nice little heads. When you harvest them, cut them off just below the head, leaving the stem. With more water and fertilizer, the plant will sprout a "second crop" of leaves that you can use for soups, salad or slaw.

The best way to cook cabbage is to steam it till just barely tender. If you use it in soups, add it at the last minute.

A favorite Warren recipe, that my family used to enjoy on the ranch in Montana, is cole slaw. Here's my version, that I made the other day from my own garden. Most people like to coarsely grate the head with the tightly closed leaves -- the center is ivory-colored and has a milder flavor. But I like to use the outer flatter leaves, which are green and have a more intense flavor. Since they can't be grated, I just stack the leaves and julienne them finely with a chef knife.


Toss together in a bowl:

8 cups raw cabbage, coarsely grated or (if you're using the outer leaves) finely julienned
6 cups coarsely grated raw carrot
3 cups dark raisins

In a small bowl, mix the dressing ingredients:

2 cups mayonnaise
1 cup home-style ranch dressing
fresh-squeezed juice of 1 large lemon
1/4 cup honey or natural sugar
salt and black pepper to taste

Pour the dressing over the vegetable mixture and mix thoroughly. Cover and chill a couple of hours, till the flavors start to blend. Keep refrigerated. If it sits overnight, it gets even better.

Feel free to add your own frills, like a sprinkling of walnuts or celery seed. Or substitute dried cranberries for the raisins. But this basic recipe is unbelievably good. The taste of home-grown cabbage is very distinctive -- smoky and pungent, the perfect foil for that delicate sweetness of carrot and raisin.

You can kick back in the shade of your own garden, big or small, with a glass of lemonade (made from your own lemons) and a plateful of cole slaw that is good enough to be enjoyed as a solo treat.

The White House chefs will envy your every bite!

Last December, a number of readers raced off to make a personal fruitcake recipe that I shared. You can still find it here.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 24, 2009 1:17 AM

I love it that you kept the seed. My father had a stubborn streak as an Indiana farmboy. We had a designated garden and the weeding, tomato worm removal, and debugging the row lettuce fell to my elder brother, then me.

I was immediately thinking about water use...and Los Angeles. There have been some wonderful innovations in water application that minimizes evaporation using "weep" hoses planted below the soil level, often at the root level itself.

I know, complicated to install, but once in place they could mean using one fourth the water.

I love that you saved the seeds.

Yes, water use is important to L.A. and everywhere else. New county restrictions are going into effect here on June 1, but it covers only sprinkler watering. People who hand-water are deemed to be economical on water use.

But you're right -- drip systems are a good way to go, and a good mulch on top to conserve the moisture. My garden has a water spigot in the house wall, and I could easily run a single drip line along the three sides of the garden, with a lot of emitters going out into the various boxes and pots.

More about this at a later time.

Oh, and tomato hornworms are actually the caterpillars of the beautiful big sphinx moth, aka hawk moth or hummingbird moth. We've all been trained to destroy them, but actually a few of them in a garden don't do much damage.

Here's an excellent link of information on these magnificent moths.

I enjoy the sight of them darting around my L.A. neighborhood and feeding with their long proboscis, which looks like a hummingbird beak. So I don't have the heart to destroy them any more, and consider the loss of a few tomatoes a good price to pay for the fun of seeing them at work.

Gardening is incredibly satisfying, and I thought it interesting you mentioned japanese eggplant.

I have, now, in my tiny little garden, three small eggplant growing, with promise in purple of many more to come. Beside it grows tomatoes -- a mistakenly grabbed little tomato, instead of the early girls I was looking for.

I had to grow japanese eggplant. FOr several years, we had a very tall bush in the front yard, and its amazing how little people know about plants, as thee were CCR's forbidding the growing of gardens in the front yard.

So we didn't grow a garden. We planted ornamental plants (the japanese eggplant is a gorgeous green and dark purple) and ground cover (amazing how effective watermelon is at such a thing).

One day I wasn't visible, and the neighborhood kids were walking by. THey stopped, giggled, and one pointed.

"Look at the schlong plant. See? I told you!"

So in mid june I will be enjoying a tomato and schlong dinner, and enjoying the unique humor of such for a transwoman....

The schlong plant! I am envisioning a stampede of gay male gardeners running to their local garden center to buy some! And they can add zuccini, crookneck squash, banana peppers, and all kinds of cucumbers for a complete schlong garden.

I'm glad you brought up the ornamental value of these plants. The star-like purple flowers of eggplant are incredibly colorful. The big standard varieties have a flower that is more lavender in hue.

Actually most vegetable plants are ornamental in some way. From the magnificent saffron-orange display of squash and pumpkin blossoms, to the massed delicate ivory blooms of Kentucky pole beans, to the tall graceful stalks of parsley and celery, with their umbels in full bloom and butterflies visiting them. (I always plant a lot of Italian flat-leafed parsley and let it bloom, because the anise swallowtail butterflies love it so much.)

Also, flowers mean I can save the seed. And some garden plants volunteer readily...though I've never had an eggplant volunteer. But chili peppers, celery, parsley, lettuce, arugula, cherry tomatoes, and some herbs don't have to be re-planted because volunteers come up all over the place if you let them.

The first thing my partner said to me when news came of Michelle Obama's intent to garden was that more of the whole country should follow her example... Like the Victory Gardens during World War II. Instead of spending incredible prices for "organic" fruits and vegetables, wouldn't it be so much better to contribute to food shortages for the poor and homeless, take some of the burden off families hit hard by the recession by providing some of their own produce, and in general, wouldn't it become a show of solidarity if the nation finally started contributing to its own well being? Now I know not everyone has a green thumb, and I'm not suggesting that everyone run and buy manure (Why would you when you can get it on Fox "news" for free?) and run wild in wanton abandon spreading appleseed. But for those of us who can, it would be such a positive way to support ourselves and our neighbors in times of trouble. I still remember spending days canning leftover tomatoes and applesauce. There was always fresh fruit, even in the winter.

The Cloe Slaw sounds fab by the way.

"...She took one look at my beautiful garden and told your father that what she wanted, more than anything in the world was greens, greens, and nothing but greens: parsley, peppers, cabbages and celery, asparagus and watercress and fiddleferns and lettuce-! He said, "All right," but it wasn't quite, Cause I caught his in the autumn in my garden one night. He was robbing me, raping me, rutting through my rutabaga, raiding my aruguala and ripping up the rampion- my champion! My favorite!"

Beautiful idea Patricia. Extending the idea of The White House garden to an individual garden. I know yours is great and calming.

For your readers, I sit often in Patricia's garden/patio. It is calming and healing. Her cole slaw is that good. Of course everything Patricia makes is that good.

What a wonderful idea...a cook book!