OLYMPIA – Just inside the foyer of the governor’s residence is a display of fresh flowers. It’s easily a $50 bouquet. Taxpayer funded? A gift from someone seeking political favors?
None of the above. They’re the flowers that Washington first lady Trudi Inslee grows along the driveway leading up to the stately mansion.
“Every once in a while someone will bring us flowers. But we supplement,” she explains as she walks a visitor past the border brimming with sky-blue delphiniums, pink penstemons, feathery astilbes, cosmos, sage and hostas.
Before the flowers were put in, the space was used as a potato patch. But the potatoes were moved to a new vegetable and fruit garden the first lady and Gov. Jay Inslee created in a sunny section of the residence’s grounds. The Department of Enterprise Services says eight 16-feet by 3-feet raised beds were added in 2013.
The garden was created to provide food, but it also serves to educate and demonstrate how easy and beneficial home and community gardening can be.
“This has been a learning process,” Trudi Inslee says. “Every year is going to be a learning process.”
A few selections from last year have been dumped – kohlrabi (a vegetable that looks like Sputnik with bunny ears) and broccoli were deemed space hogs – and new ones added.
“We’re focusing on plants that give us the most bang for the buck, as far as space goes,” she says.
The raised beds were built using nonpublic funds. In fact, everything about the garden, from seeds to labor, is donated or paid for by the Inslees. The soil was purchased by the Inslees in 2013, but this year it was supplemented by compost donated by Cedar Grove.
Labor has been provided by AmeriCorps, Kiwanis, students from Olympia’s GRuB (Garden-Raised Bounty) program, state employees and everyday citizens.
“We put out a come one, come all,” Trudi Inslee says.
The boxes hold tomatoes, strawberries, garlic, corn, kale, beets, chard, spinach, carrots, rhubarb and butter lettuce in rows so perfect it seems a shame to harvest them. But harvest they have.
The all-organic garden already has sent 50 pounds of greens to the Thurston County Food Bank this year. The garden’s production has exceeded what Inslee imagined it would, she says. In 2013, the garden provided 500 pounds of food to the food bank, the Salvation Army community kitchen and the Rainier Valley Food Bank.
Puyallup seed purveyor Ed Hume and his family have donated most of the seeds and starts. Hume advises on planting selections and layout.
“It’s pretty low maintenance,” Inslee says as she looks at the boxes. The 3-foot-high structures deter slugs, don’t require adults to bend over and give children an eye-to-eye view of the plants.
“What always amazes us is how many people come over and have never picked a tomato or harvested lettuce or pulled a carrot out of the dirt. They didn’t know how things grow,” Inslee says.
New this year is a section of fava beans.
“Jay likes to tell people he wants to have some fava beans with a nice Chianti,” Inslee says with a laugh, referencing Hannibal Lecter’s now-famous line from “The Silence of the Lambs.”
As Inslee shows visitors through the garden, a staff member drives by and waves.
“There’s Quan, our chef, who gets a lot of food from here,” Inslee explains. Quan Hoang uses food from the garden in the dishes he prepares for official dinners and receptions. The Inslees cook their family meals in a kitchen on the mansion’s second floor.
On any given summer evening, a passerby might catch a glimpse of the governor watering his garden, like any other home gardener, or the first lady weeding. It might seem unusual to visitors, but not to Trudi Inslee, who comes from a family of farmers.
One day last year, she was working in the garden wearing her “grubbies” when a tour group came through. Inslee offered some basil to a woman. When the shocked visitor realized who Inslee was, she asked, “What are you doing out here dressed like that?”
The Inslees are proponents of programs that get fresh food into schools. That means connecting farmers with school districts and enabling school workers to prepare fresh food, Inslee says.
“They’re used to assembling and heating prepackaged food in their kitchens. Often, they don’t even have the equipment (to cook food). The kids really like having fresh fruit and vegetables. Even in the winter they can have potatoes and squash.”
Inslee is surprised at how popular the garden is with visitors.
“We thought, well, maybe some people will think this is a crazy use of our time and resources. But we’ve had nothing but positive feedback. It’s nice to work on something that’s not controversial. Hopefully it inspires people.”
Is there a Democratic or Republican way to garden? Inslee doesn’t think so.
“I really hope that gardening is a nonpolitical, bipartisan issue. Everybody deserves to be healthy and have good food.”