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Richmond executive mansion gets its own vegetable garden

Rosalind Helderman

The first lady gathered children together today to plant a community garden that she and her chef will use in cooking for the first family, to promote healthy eating habits.

No, not that first lady -- Michelle Obama worked her garden at the White House yesterday.

mcdonnell_garden.jpg Today it was Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell's turn to install a garden, tucked behind the executive mansion in Richmond's Capitol Square, at the end of a driveway and next to the mansion's rose garden. (Yup, it's got one of those, too.)

"Children today, they have what I call a 'culture of convenience,' " McDonnell said. Microwavable and fast food abound. "You have to make a direct effort to get outside of that."

She was joined by Marty Kilgore, executive director of Virginia's Foundation for Healthy Youth, as well as Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Todd Haymore, and representatives from corporate sponsor Home Depot and Leadership Metro Richmond, a local volunteer organization simultaneously installing eight community gardens at schools and other locales across the city.

The spacious garden boxes replace a smaller garden and a basketball hoop favored by previous Gov. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. The group planted various herbs, tomatoes, carrots, squash, onions, celery and strawberries.

McDonnell noted that in its early years, the grounds of the mansion held gardens and even grazing cows to provide food for the first family. She said the family may try to resurrect some 200-year-old recipes in celebration of the building's upcoming 200th birthday this year. The home of the Virginia governor is the oldest occupied governor's mansion in the country.

McDonnell said that she following in the footsteps of her grandmother, who kept a large, lush garden in the back of her Falls Church home, as well as her mother, who had a pillow that read "Gardners Have the Best Dirt." (That's a play on Maureen McDonnell's maiden name -- Gardner.)

She said Gov. Bob McDonnell has already been talking about using produce from the garden to make a fresh spaghetti marinara sauce. Spaghetti is his favorite, she explained. He would make it while they were dating in college -- "spags," he called it.

And executive mansion chef Todd Schneider, whose first day on the job is today, said he'd be making full use of the harvest as well. "We're going to use everything," he said.

McDonnell is quickly becoming one of Virginia's most vocal advocates for local food and wine. She said that when she and the governor go out to dinner, if she does not see Virginia wine on the menu, she'll summon the chef or manager to complain.

Healthy eating and combating childhood obesity is also a project for McDonnell. She met with the first lady in Alexandria to hold a joint event on the topic shortly after her husband's inauguration. Yes, that first lady.

(Photo courtesy Michaele White, Office of the Governor)

By Rosalind Helderman  |  April 1, 2010; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman  
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