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Questions and Answers

Release No. 0120.09
USDA Press Office (202) 720-4623

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When President Abraham Lincoln founded the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862, he called it The People's Department. Back then, most Americans farmed and lived on farms. Although farmers and ranchers account for only a small percentage of our population today, by some estimates, each farmer produces enough each year to feed 144 people.

The People's Garden is designed to provide a sampling of USDA's efforts throughout the world as well as teach others how to nurture, maintain and protect a healthy landscape. If practiced, the following garden concepts can be your contribution to providing, healthy food for people and communities.

Q. What is a Three Sisters Garden?

A. For centuries, Native American's have cultivated the soil and produced corn, beans and squash. Stories, ceremonies, songs and cultural traditions surround the annual planting, growing and harvest of gardens. Life lessons were learned throughout the gardening season. Stories of Three Sisters refer to a tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mound. It is a sophisticated, sustainable planting system that provided long term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations of Native Americans.

Corn is the oldest sister. She stands tall in the center and provides strength and protection to her sisters below. She is not a lone plant, as she grows with a handful of corn sisters. Beans are the second sister. She surrounds sister corn and reaches to the sun, climbing up the corn stalks. Her role is to keep the soil fertile by converting the sun's energy into nitrogen filled nodules that grow on its roots. As she grows, she shares and uses the stored nitrogen as food. Squash is the third sister. Her vines trail over the mound, her leaves protect the sisters from weeds and shade the soil from the sun, and her beautiful blooms invite the bees and pollinate the Sisters while keeping the ground cool and moist. Her prickly stems help to deter pests and rodents from eating the nutritious produce.

You can start your own tradition and share in life lessons learned by raising your own Three Sisters garden and preserve an important method of gardening, passed down through generation to generation.

Q: What will be planted in the vegetable garden?

A. USDA will plant several types of organic vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs and pollinator friendly plants. Because the garden also is an educational demonstration, USDA will plant some unique types of fibers, such as the flax plant used to make linen, and grains, such as sorghum and millet, to raise public awareness regarding agriculture.

In early spring, USDA has planted organic cool weather crops. Specifically, broccoli, kale, collards, seed radishes, cilantro, parsley, seed carrots, seed parsnips, hull peas, sugar snap peas, lettuces, beets, chard and spinach. Other organic crops are planned for late spring, late summer and mid-Fall.

Q. Will the vegetable garden be organic?

A. Yes, the vegetable garden will be organic. USDA has begun the process to have the vegetable garden certified organic. The process typically takes 3 years to complete. During this time, USDA will share the steps of this process and actions being undertaken to help raise awareness about organic standards and develop educational tools to assist farmers in the certification process.

The organic vegetable garden demonstrates what individuals can do to embrace organic practices and healthy eating regardless of where they live or work. The People's Garden illustrates container gardens for small urban spaces, raised beds for community plots and larger field plantings for schools, institutions and farms. USDA is planning to replicate many of these garden features at USDA properties throughout the United States.

Q: What will USDA do with the produce from the vegetable garden?

A. The food from the vegetable garden will be donated to a local food bank.

Q. What is the Potager Pollinator Garden?

A. Potager is a French term for kitchen garden - a fusion of the gardener's desire for vegetables and a plot that is beautiful as well as useful and productive. The potager area mixes organic vegetables with native plants. Flowers are an important ingredient for beauty and pollination, and have been carefully selected to compliment the vegetables.

Q. What are transition field plots?

A. Transitioning conventional gardening and farming practices to Certified Organic requires a series of crop rotations to improve existing soil's fertility and structure and to sequester previously applied chemicals. Three years of approved organic management must occur before harvested crops can be sold as or be labeled organic. USDA's planned crop rotations include organic field peas, plowed in and followed with buckwheat and then crimson clover.

Q. What are bioswale and rain gardens?

A. Stormwater from USDA parking lots, rooftops and walks will be redirected to bioswales that filter and infiltrate runoff. Bioswales improve soil and water quality, reduce silt and pollution and provide scenic and wildlife habitat. Consisting of a drainage course with gently sloped sides, the bioswale will be composted and planted with native vegetation to maximize water absorption and infiltration.

The rain garden will be a shallow depression to capture the remaining stormwater runoff exiting the bioswale. Planted with native grasses and shrubs, the rain garden allows excess runoff to be absorbed into the ground. Native plants are recommended because they don't require fertilizer and are more tolerant of local climate, soil, water and drought conditions.

Q. Who will maintain the garden?

A. USDA employees will volunteer to work in the garden on their own time. The garden also will be maintained by USDA's local landscape contractor, Melwood Organization. Melwood is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit created in 1963 to serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Melwood serves more than 2,100 people with developmental disabilities in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Q. Will other USDA offices have gardens?

A. Yes. During the dedication of the People's Garden, Secretary Vilsack challenged USDA employees to create more sustainable landscapes at USDA facilities around the world, which includes creating gardens. This launched the People's Garden Initiative at USDA.

Q. Will all USDA facilities plant vegetable gardens?

A. No. Each office will determine what type of garden is most feasible depending on the site limitations, existing lease requirements as well as other local factors. USDA expects to have a wide range of gardens that could include anything from window boxes to rain gardens.

Q. How can people outside of USDA become involved in the People's Garden Initiative?

A. Local residents and community groups should contact their local USDA office for more information about volunteering. Offices are listed in the phone book under U.S. Government. This information also can be found at www.usda.gov under "contact us" or http://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app for USDA Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development.

Q. Where will USDA plant the seedling magnolia tree given to USDA by the First Lady?

A. USDA will decide on the best location as they design the master plan for the People's Garden. The seedling comes from the Jackson magnolia tree that sits on the south portico of the White House. It's a special tree because it was planted by President Jackson in honor of his wife Rachel who passed right before they moved into the White House.

The small Magnolia grandiflora tree was repotted on Monday, February 23rd into a pot that will allow its root system room to grow. It is currently growing in a USDA greenhouse at the U.S. National Arboretum.

Q. What else will be put into the People's Garden?

A. Other ideas for the People's Garden include a series of rain and pollinator gardens, bioswales (landscaping to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water), native planting sites, green roofs, an education plaza, a memorial walk and a children's garden. Through these many garden concepts, "The People's Garden" demonstrates USDA's commitment to connecting with communities, promoting good health and conserving the Nation's environment.