The Trillion Dollar Garden

For six months President Obama has been struggling to save the economy, improve international relations and craft a universal health care plan. Last year’s Wall Street meltdown stunned the nation, conjuring up images of a worldwide depression.

Yet, oddly enough, there is a bright spot on the horizon, and, in the President’s case, it’s shining just outside his window. Last March, on the first day of spring, the Obamas planted a relatively small (990 square feet) kitchen garden, at the cost of $200 in seeds. They plan to use the energetic efforts of school children from the neighboring communities for the 8-10 month garden’s life. Research estimates put the average ratio of grocery store cost savings to the equivalent amount of vegetables and herbs produced by a home garden at 1:25. The Obama’s family of five—including Mrs. Obama’s mother—will invest $200 for a savings of $5,000.

Last winter I wrote that I thought the President and First Lady might start gardening in private at Camp David (please see Camp Obama), and then use this experience to help start a personal White House garden. However, I misread their interests in community development. (Although there are still communities around Camp David.) No doubt that I “misunderestimated” their commitment to helping folks—especially the less privileged in DC—battle the recession.

Yet, seriously, there are many other home garden yields as great as money saved, including physical health, a sense of psychological wellbeing, the pure joy of truly fresh flavors, and amusements as colorful as Disney World. Medical research has long established that regular gentle exercise—bending, stretching, pulling—not only prolongs, but also improves the quality of life. In this sense, a garden is a permanent personal trainer-in-residence. As First Lady Michelle Obama demonstrated vividly in her inaugural garden photograph, a determined smile and strong back are worth a thousand words. In addition, the psychic rewards of a life lived intimately with plants has been documented since time began. Gardens have been the birthplace of art, poetry, music, medicine and scientific discovery.

Finally, when compared to store bought produce that has been picked unripe and shipped hundreds of miles over several weeks, a vine-ripened tomato, freshly dug potato, and just picked muskmelon possess flavors that are without comparison. It is primarily for this last reason, which is the “unreason” of pure delight, that gardens have been the image and symbol of Paradise throughout history and in all cultures.

These compelling benefits may explain the surprising statistic that approximately one-third or 40 million out of 120 million American households, engage in some form of vegetable or herb gardening. Nevertheless, industry sales figures suggest that most of these households have gardens smaller than the new one at the White House. Yet, if every one of the 40MM gardeners in America convinces just two friends or neighbors to take up this phenomenally worthwhile hobby, there could be over 100MM household vegetable gardens in 2010.

I mentioned above that the Obama’s garden was modest in comparison to an experienced and enthusiastic home gardener’s production. I have faith that the White House garden will at least double in size by next year, thus reducing the White House grocery bill by $10,000. Imagine the average household creating a 2,000 square foot vegetable garden—about the same “footprint” as a small house or bungalow. Then imagine that smaller and larger families would also join in, either in their yards or local community gardens. Without too much effort, one hundred million households could save an average of $10,000 a year. This would have bailed out the US auto industry several times over. More cogent is the fact that a trillion dollars is the same figure being discussed as the total cost for our nation’s health care reform. Not a coincidence, in my opinion.

My depression-era parents grew up doing chores and walking to school several times a day. Occasionally, in their later years, they would bemoan the sudden appearance of school buses in every neighborhood of my hometown, a small and leafy suburb of Chicago. Even I walked back and forth to school twice a day for a total of four miles for six years. My folks would say, “They could save gas as well as keep the kids from going soft”. I wish they had lived to hear my proposal to the President of the United States for a nationwide movement to create The Trillion Dollar Garden.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 8th, 2009 at 5:52 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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31 Responses to “The Trillion Dollar Garden”

  1. susan james said:

    One of your BEST blogs, George! We have only a small, eight-square garden with approx. five-foot plots. It feeds us, neighbors, mothers, and daughter’s family of six-PLUS-fills our small, chest freezer!

  2. Carole Ferguson said:

    Hear me cheer your thoughts on a home grown food garden. I am working with a project to help children this is real food, they can grow and it tastes best fresh from the backyard. There are some complications such as “mouth feel” which is a problem when real food doesn’t feel good to a young mouth accustomed to “slippery food” with corn syrup and corn starch. Sigh. We had it right…then lost it. Now to get it back but better.

  3. Nancy said:

    I applaud the Obama’s vegetable garden. I would like to see them also support native plants. This would truly help our birds, butterflies, insects and mammals, and make people aware of the loss of habitat for these creatures. Non-native plants can become invasive and therefore restrict or remove the plants which are the diets for our native birds, butterflies, insects and mammals.

  4. Jeri said:

    It is about time we all got back to basics.. Leave it to our President and First Lady to set the standard… Bless them for all that they done in their short time in the White House.. It is the people,s house.. My garden is already planted also… More community gardening needs to be done.. We could all start with Seniors and help them plant a garden.. They are all on tight budgets, and would love the help and cost savings. Call your local Senior Center and see if you can start helping…

  5. Roberta D Young said:

    Perhaps if the Obama’s wanted to make an effort to help people, they’d show how easy it is to tend to it themselves…Sasha and Malia in on it, rather than leave it only to others to tend. The whole point is to DO IT YOURSELF. I was pleased to see them put in a garden and then felt it was all a publicity stunt when they walked away.

  6. Taylor Collins said:

    very good to hear such positive stats on home / shared / community gardens. i have a small lot of which 80% is tilled / planted with edibles and herbs. the dogs have the rest of the yard to wander. some mock me, but picking fresh for meals daily makes me smile. i love the work and the lifestyle that comes with it.

  7. TC said:

    A lot is said about the joys of gardening. Little is mentioned of the not-so-pleasant. Take Japanese beetles. Please!!

    I wonder what the Obama’s would do should cucumber beetles show up in their garden? Oh, never mind, I’m sure they pay someone to take care of such things for them. I mean after all, they are the First Family. I’m still waiting to hear back from the White House about an interview I’d like to conduct with the head gardener. The first question would be how much does the job pay?

  8. Jane said:

    Bravo. I recently received a concerned e-mail about an upcoming vote in Congress that the e-mailers were sure would bring about an end to family and organic gardens. Does anyone know about this bill who could help inform me?

  9. LHW said:

    Mr. Ball,
    This past Sunday our five year old grandson, “found a potato” as grandma was digging. He promptly pocketed it to take home. I hope that millions of children will find potatoes in home and community gardens soon! Excellent blog!


  10. Ann said:

    We are retired.We live in a very tiny house on a 50 x 100 foot lot facing a salt water lagoon. We both have poor health but we continue to plow forward (in more ways than one). We garden & feed the birds, it keeps us moving.We grow beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, herbs,( so good fresh picked)squash, strawberries, blueberries and anything else we can fit into our established raised beds 8 feet x 24 feet. We have had to BUY DIRT(as the saying goes in this area) in order to have good soil. The soil on the southern NJ coast is sand or clay, but we now have rich black soil that seems to grow anything we plant. We have hauled top soil, peat moss and planks but we got it done. This year we added our last 8 feet, we are out of room after 13 years of living here. When we look at our plot with the bright marigolds planted all around the edge we really enjoy the effort we have made.

    We talked about the Obama’s and gardens in early Spring and we both hoped that they would follow up on the gardening idea. Now I would like to hear that the Obama girls are out there weeding and picking because this is such a great thing for kids to do in order for them to really appreciate the good things the earth can provide to us when we put in the effort and perhaps they could also learn to freeze and preserve their crops ( not that they will ever need these skills but it would show other kids what can be done).
    I realize kids today are into other things but once a gardener always a gardener ( hopefully). The Obama kids could really make a point with the younger generation but we will see just what kind of follow up happens with the White House Garden. Let’s all hope the positive effect continues.

  11. Ann said:

    Bless you Jeri, your comment about helping seniors is a real winner in my book!!

  12. Carol and Jack Miner said:

    Our parents struggled during the depression and left a lasting legacy for both of us which included a vegetable garden wherever we lived in the U.S. Currently we are living in VT with a fruit and vegetable garden that equals the size of the White House garden – eating better and saving lots of money!

  13. John said:

    This is EXACTLY the kind of stupid “feel good” economics spewed out by the liberal idiots that has gotten us into this mess to begin with. $200 for seed to plant a 900 sq.ft. garden. Another example of government overspending on EVERYTHING that it buys. And just how many thousands of additional tax dollars is it going to cost for us to pay for the cultivation and harvesting of these wonderful veggies? You really think that they are going to pick any of it themselves? “Trillion Dollar Garden”. Well, at least you got the name right. It will probably cost us taxpayers at least a trillion dollars by the time we pay for all the hype that is coming from this stupid idea.

    Just my opinion…like most sensible conservative opinions, it probably won’t get published, anyway.


  14. Bernadette said:

    I really enjoyed your article. It’s great to see our leader actually doing something that we can all do. Grow a garden, whether it be big or small.

  15. Tina DiMeo said:

    Yes, imagine if all the derelict lots in urban neighborhoods could be transformed into community gardens! What a boon for the area, the gardeners’ well-being, their children in learning to nurture something and watch it grow, and their pocketbooks in savings, not to mention the health benefits.

  16. margaret said:

    I just wish I could determine your politics for real-each post I read, I change my perception. great reading anyway

  17. James Swearengin said:

    Americans are too lazzy

  18. Nancy Hines said:

    Whatever President Obama or Mrs. Obama does regarding planting a vegetable garden at the White House, it will be more than the previous President ever did!!!!! It’s all about setting a POSITIVE example!!!

  19. Andrea Powell said:

    You can’t really believe that either Mr Obama or his wife are going to get their hands dirty gardening! This is purely for SHOW. This whole administration is full of smoke and mirrors. I’ll bet neither Obama would have any idea how to develop, plant or maintain a garden. They know nothing about dogs either! I wish there was some honesty in the White House.

  20. Beverley said:

    What a fantastically interesting article. Well done the writer. As soon as it’s widely known that EVERYONE can have their own vegetable garden, whether it be 10 acres or 5 small pots on a balcony, the world will be a much better, and far healthier, place.
    Beverley, Tasmania, Australia

  21. Marnie Crowe said:

    This is my second year at a Community Garden in Victoria, BC. Last year I grew enough food for my family, the neighbours and then had more left over to give away to food banks. The “plot” is 20 x 25 and its yield was phenomenal. No gym time for me, just the veggie garden and my own shade garden at home to keep me fit and healthy.

  22. JANIS said:

    When did Camp David become Camp Obama? We can sure see that you wear your politics on your shirt sleeve and you did mean trillion dollar stimulus that our great grandchildren will be paying for didn’t you? President Obama needs to do alot more then plant a garden to help this economy. It was a nice article but next time don’t bring your politics into an article that is suppose to be about the wonderful effects a garden can bring.

  23. Nancy Henry said:

    George…Love your thoughts about growing food…I think everyone who knows how ought to teach others because the hunger and suffering has just begun…Nancy

  24. David said:

    Leave the politics out and get back to what Mr. Ball is actually trying to say, we can all do something to help, whether it’s planting a garden, teaching our children to do something other than “text”, or helping someone else. If you sit at 11:32 pm and complain maybe your are not part of the solution? I have met Mr. Ball, we produced a pilot for a cooking series a few years ago and there is a genuine passion for better things in the man. Sure, there is an underlying marketing plan, but dig deeper to see what Burpee and Mr. Ball gives back!

    My brother works in the RV Industry, or what’s left of it. He actually works for the number one manufacturer and they are down to 32 hr weeks, twice a month. Last year he planted a garden and he estimates that the benefit was very close to 1:100. When the on-slaught of tomatos and cukes came, he made the rounds to other employees and the senior center. This year he has doubled the size of his garden and invited others to plant there as well. He also got his two boys involved and they think they are farmers. Keep up the good work Mr. Ball and all the others out there trying to make a difference.

  25. John said:

    I just have to make another comment and ask a few questions. I really need to see everyone at least get the facts straight. This is not a $5000 gain for a $200 investment. Can we at least agree on that. I own a business. There is always added expenses and labor to be paid. In addition to the seed, there is soil amendments, fertilizers, possibly pesticides, fuel for the tiller, etc. etc. to be paid for. Then there is the labor. This garden has to be prepared, planted, cultivated, and harvested. I guarantee you that the Obama’s aren’t going to “volunteer” to do it for free. And it takes a lot of labor to do this. Remember we are talking about government supervised, security cleared, presidential approved, taxpayer financed, EXPENSIVE, labor. People, it’s going to take thousands and thousands of dollars to reap the “benefits” of a few extra vegetables. The $200 that they are spending on seed is just the tip of the iceberg. I need for my president to lead my country. Putting out false economics is not leading. It’s deceiving. He needs to spend his time getting the country back in line and giving speeches. (assuming his teleprompter’s not broken) And just for the record, there is no way that it costs $200 for a few Collard, Turnip Greens, and Watermelon Seed.

  26. George said:

    Hold onto your shorts there, John. The trillion dollars in savings would enable folks to spend that money—money they saved—on things other than overpriced produce at the supermarket. I was trying to point out that it’s about the same cost as that projected for the conversion to the newly discussed healthcare reform.

    Also, I think that the additional costs taken out—and this includes energy such as gas and coolers and truck wear and tear—down the supply line would help the economy as well. It’s the “Walmart effect”. Everyone “hates” Walmart, but ever notice how much money they save the ordinary consumer? Similarly, if you buy a trowel, a hoe, a few bags of fertilizer or a composter, and put some elbow grease, these are either one-time costs, or else activities that do a body good, i.e., make you grunt and sweat, and just might put a few more years onto your life, or make the ones you have left less sickly and, thus, perhaps less burdensome on the overall health care industry.

    It’s like seat belts. I remember when they first came out, then the laws came out. Lots of older folks said they’d never wear them. Yet thousands of lives have been saved. Same with backyard vegetable gardening. As to the seed costs: the $200 is for the entire year—not just the first sowing. Perhaps they might’ve spent less. I don’t know the precise cultivars they purchased, since they were sourced from several places that specialize in older, historical varieties. That was their choice, as befits a “White House” period setting. (This is why I suggested they test their chops out at Camp David.)

    My point remains that the conservative ratio is 1:25 for seed and fertilizer costs (mainly seed) to costs of vegetables bought. And, John, this is a comparison of “home-grown” to “store-bought”. Maybe you can do the math, but do you also get the point? Taste buds?

    “Have Seed, Will Save You.”

  27. Mike W. said:

    Lots of new gardeners this year due to poor economy and some presidential influence via Michelle Obama. Helped my 4 year old grandson with a “square foot Garden Box” two years ago now the family has expanded to 4 Boxes. In addition two of my other grand children have shown interest this year and have started their own “boxes” with the help of the parents. The trend is catching on more each year. Great educational experience for the entire families.

  28. David said:

    WOW…not only political bashing but a racial slur as well! Don’t miss the message, ROI! I did the math on my brother’s garden: Dirt – Free, Tiller Rent – $10 as four people rented for 1/2 day, gas – $1.00, compost for fertilizer – free from the landfill, seed – $50, labor -???what the heck else does he have to do on off days that he’s watching the kids?, no other chemicals, tools he already had, the experience he is giving his kids…priceless. And to top it off, he built a rain barrel using a 55 ga plastic container obtained free from a local industrial source that sanitized them and used to pay to have them hauled away, to water his garden. However you would probably deem that some type of multi-million dollar “issue” as well.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, however I do not see the point of hurtful comments towards people that are actually trying to make a difference?

  29. Connie said:


    The Maryland Master Gardeners have begun a formal teaching program “Grow it, Eat It!” to help people learn how to garden. <<>>

    The National Project of the new president of National Garden Clubs is about getting children involved in food gardening. (They are slow in updating their website, so no link yet.)

    Maybe the American people are ready to relearn what we’ve forgotten.

  30. El gen said:

    George, where can i get free labor like the one the first lady is getting for her garden. If i include the time that it would consume me to grow a garden the cost saving that you bring cannot be sustained. Also, the yields have been very poor skyrocking the cost per area.

    I think this is all a big fantasy and activities like this should not be prmoted by the president unless as an interesting hobby. You will never be able to feed a growing population this way

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