Let there be beets.
That’s what Burpee chairman George Ball hopes to hear from first lady Melania Trump. In his vegetable diplomacy, Ball also is using some special Slovenian onions with ties to her family.
Burpee, the 140-year-old seed catalog giant, already has secured the future of the White House Kitchen Garden, America’s most famous vegetable patch, with a $2.5 million gift to the National Park Foundation. Coming from the company and its educational foundation, the gift represents enough money to fully fund the garden’s maintenance and expansion for 17 years. That gift was made last October as a way to keep the garden going through several administrations, no matter their opinions on broccoli or other veggies.
With the help of Washington, D.C., schoolchildren, the garden was originally planted by former first lady Michelle Obama in March 2009 as a way to show how edible gardening can lead to healthy eating. Before the Obamas left the White House, the garden was expanded to about 2,800 square feet with permanent bluestone paths and a welcoming arch installed last fall on the White House south lawn.
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“I take great pride in knowing that this little garden will live on as a symbol of the hopes and dreams we all hold of growing a healthier nation for our children,” Mrs. Obama said during October’s garden rededication. “I am hopeful that future first families will cherish this garden like we have.”
Much to Ball’s relief, Mrs. Trump recently OK’d continuation of the kitchen garden, which has become a favorite of White House cooks and staff.
“That was most exciting,” Ball said by phone from Burpee’s Pennsylvania headquarters. “We didn’t know if it would survive. With every president, it’s dealer’s choice. Even the rose garden, that was President Wilson’s thing. Like all the White House gardens, it doesn’t necessarily need to stay there. It’s up to the president and first lady.
“We kept our fingers crossed; we were pushing really hard,” Ball added. “But (the Trumps) did commit to the garden for their term. We were thrilled.”
Ball currently is working on a special addition to the garden: Slovenian red onions. He’s inspired by Melania Trump’s maternal grandfather, Anton Ulčnik, an onion breeder credited with creating the Raka red onion.
“Slovenia is famous for its onions,” Ball said. “The Raka is a beautiful medium-size red onion, a cross of old Slovenian and Egyptian onions, and it’s supposed to be very, very delicious.”
Amid political crisis, the Raka onion all but disappeared after the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1980s. In the Slovenian town of Raka, there’s currently an effort to reintroduce its namesake onion, but Raka seeds have been extremely difficult to obtain outside Slovenia.
“I’m hoping to get the seeds in time for fall planting,” Ball said. “I’m really looking forward to presenting them to Melania.”
What’s planted in the garden is up to her and the White House staff, he noted. “We have friendly input, but that’s it.”
Since it began, the garden has supplied the White House with tons of fresh produce; it yields more than 2,000 pounds a year. In addition to feeding the first family and staff, some of those vegetables and herbs have gone into official state lunches and dinners. About one-third of its harvest was donated to Washington, D.C., food banks. National Park Service staff maintains the garden as part of its White House landscape duties.
Although the garden has grown about 55 varieties of vegetables and herbs, one root crop never made it into the raised beds: beets. President Barack Obama vetoed his least favorite vegetable.
“President Obama wasn’t fond of beets just like the first President (George) Bush famously didn’t like broccoli,” Ball said. “But beets are a centerpiece of Slovenian cuisine. Beets are a staple of Slavic cooking. I suspect we’ll get some beets in the garden now.”