Showcasing sustainable farming, the Agriculture Department celebrated Earth Day by starting to turn USDA's 6-acre tract on the National Mall into an organic garden.
USDA plans to turn grass, ornamental trees and flowers into an expansive "People's Garden" to demonstrate conservation and growing techniques. There will be a 1,300-square-foot vegetable plot, pollinator gardens, mini-wetlands, green roofs and demonstrations of planting techniques that can reduce stormwater runoff.
Saying USDA plans to be a "center of sustainability," Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan led children of department employees and other visitors in planting corn, squash and beans for a traditional Sioux "three sisters" garden. She also urged USDA offices across the country to start their own gardens.
"It's my first public event at USDA, and it's about community gardening -- isn't that great?" said Merrigan, a longtime organic farming advocate.
But she was careful to say the garden does not represent a new direction for USDA, which is usually seen as a promoter of large-scale agriculture production. Rather, she said, the garden would restore some of the original intent of the grounds around USDA headquarters -- an area set aside for research a century ago. USDA now manages thousands of acres of research plots at its facility in Beltsville, Md.
"It's USDA, it's where we started and where we are coming back," Merrigan said. "This is where America sees the government, in Washington, D.C. They should be able to see some agriculture in action."
The garden will include organic greens, herbs and vegetables and a section that will demonstrate how to convert conventional crops into organics. The department is taking steps now to have the plot certified as organic in three years. Merrigan told reporters the decision to devote the garden to organic crops was intended to educate the public about organic food.
"A lot of people are still trying to figure out what 'organic' means," she said. "Here's the front lawn we can use to talk about what the standard is and how they can follow through."
USDA employees will be asked to volunteer in the garden, according to the department. It also will be maintained by the department's landscape contractor, the Melwood organization. The agency plans to donate vegetables grown there to a food bank.
The garden expands on initial plans that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in February when he broke ground for a small "People's Garden" outside USDA headquarters. Vilsack had envisioned a vegetable garden only half the size of the new plot.
"The garden will help explain to the public how small things they can do at home, at their business or on their farm or ranch, can promote sustainability, conserve the nation's natural resources, and make America a leader in combating climate change," Vilsack said in a statement.