Vilsack tours ambassador's garden

PARIS -- When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Paris in June for the G-20 meeting of agriculture ministers, he stopped to tour something at the American ambassador's residence: an organic vegetable garden inspired by the USDA People's Ga...

PARIS -- When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Paris in June for the G-20 meeting of agriculture ministers, he stopped to tour something at the American ambassador's residence: an organic vegetable garden inspired by the USDA People's Garden program and first lady Michelle Obama's kitchen garden at the White House.

The American ambassador's residence in Paris, located at 41 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore between the Elysee Palace, the French president's residence, and the Cercle de l'Union Interalliee, a private club, is one of the grand houses of the world.

Built in the 1840s by a woman from New Orleans, the Baroness de Pontalba, the house later was owned by members of the Rothschild banking family, but served as a Nazi officers' club during World War II. The American government bought it in 1948, and it became the ambassador's residence in 1972.

Behind the art-filled mansion, there is a sweeping lawn that is used for entertaining in the summer.

Pamela Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to France during the Clinton administration, gave a Fourth of July garden party promoting American foods that earned her the reputation as the American farmer's best friend in Europe. But it would have been hard to imagine Harriman, who had been married to Winston Churchill's son and was the widow of railroad magnate and diplomat Averell Harriman, growing vegetables in the back yard.


Recently, however, when Ambassador Charles Rivkin and his wife, Susan Tolson, hosted their Fourth of July party, the food included herbs and vegetables grown in the residence's ornamental, organic kitchen garden or "jardin potager ornemental biologique," as the embassy describes it in French.

Tolson told Agweek in an interview that she had been inspired by Michelle Obama's garden on the south lawn of the White House and that she considers the Paris garden and advocacy for the first lady's healthy eating campaign her "little bit" of a contribution to diplomacy while her husband serves as ambassador.

The garden was designed and built by students at the Ecole Du Breuil, a Paris professional horticultural school, she explained, after the embassy's agriculture affairs office introduced her to school officials. The students were present for Vilsack's visit to receive certificates and gifts of appreciation.

People's Garden project

Inspired by President Lincoln's view that the Agriculture Department was the "People's Department," Vilsack started the People's Garden initiative in 2009 by planting a garden at USDA headquarters in Washington and encouraging all USDA facilities around the world to plant a garden.

The Paris ambassador's garden is different from the People's Garden at USDA headquarters in Washington and even from the White House kitchen garden.

The USDA garden features indigenous grasses and flowers, including the Native American "three sisters" plants -- corn, beans and squash -- that grow together in a mound. And while the White House kitchen garden grows all edible items, the Paris garden is a mixture of flowers with vegetables and herbs mixed in.

Although the White House garden is not technically organic, Tolson said she wanted to make the Paris garden "totally organic and in the style of the residence with flowers and vegetables ripening so that there would be color at all times."


Ecole Du Breuil professor Herve Dardillat said mixing flowers and vegetables is traditional in France and allows the two types of plants to protect each other from diseases.

Pioneer, a division of DuPont, provided seeds for ornamental, multiheaded sunflowers and for drought-tolerant corn that the company is not yet selling in France. DuPont France President Martin Virot and Michael Keller, a Pioneer spokesman, were present for the Vilsack visit. Keller noted that the corn seed is not genetically modified, which would be illegal to use in France. Pioneer DuPont also paid for an intern from Ecole Du Breuil to work in the garden.

Designed by students

The students were challenged to work as a team and to design a garden from scratch that was both ornamental and useful, Dardillat said. He described the garden as "a boat garden" because many of the plants are in wooden boxes, built from rot-resistant chestnut wood.

Student Milly Auger said the ambassador's garden was "a big chance for the school and for us" because it was a prestigious assignment and the students did all the work from designing the garden to executing it.

The French media largely has ignored the garden on the theory that the United States is a country of fast food and obese people who have nothing to teach the French about gardening, a source with a knowledge of the garden told Agweek.

Encouraging gardening

Not all French are so cynical, however. Representatives of the Paris Mayor's Office of Green Spaces and the Environment and the Federation Nationale des Jardins Familiaux et Collectifs, an organization that helps individuals, families and groups of people to garden, attended the event.


Guillame Bros of the federation noted that many French eat "quick food" and that "poor people have a lack of good food."

His group pushes local governments to make space available for gardens and to rehabilitate soil that has not been used for growing food for many years. Bros said that "people want good, organic food," but that it is a different time from World War II, when people grew food in gardens because they had to, and that people need encouragement to garden.

After touring the garden, Vilsack said, "I like to see people's gardens anywhere" and that he had been particularly impressed that the plants included kiwi that does not have to be peeled.

But Vilsack's Iowa roots also may have shown through. He said he hoped he did not create a diplomatic incident when he noted that the corn in the garden had a ways to go if it was "to be knee high by the Fourth of July."

At the ambassador's Independence Day party in Paris, the focus was to be on foods from the garden. Yves Roquel, the executive chef at the residence, said his favorites from the garden include basil pesto, mille feuilles de tomates and glace a la verveine -- verbena ice cream.

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