Scarborough man takes garden revolution from White House to world

Posted Sept. 12, 2011, at 9:22 p.m.
Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, snips some leafy greens for an early afternoon salad Monday in the garden behind his Scarborough home. More than a year after his organization convinced the first family to plant a garden at the White House, Doiron has his sights set on new goals in advocating for kitchen gardens.
Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, snips some leafy greens for an early afternoon salad Monday in the garden behind his Scarborough home. More than a year after his organization convinced the first family to plant a garden at the White House, Doiron has his sights set on new goals in advocating for kitchen gardens.
Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, holds the beginnings of an early afternoon salad Monday at his Scarborough home. He harvested the leafy greens and the edible Nasturtium flowers from his own backyard for the dish.
Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, holds the beginnings of an early afternoon salad Monday at his Scarborough home. He harvested the leafy greens and the edible Nasturtium flowers from his own backyard for the dish.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Roger Doiron garnered widespread media attention in 2008 and 2009, when he spearheaded a successful effort to convince the Obama family to plant a garden on the White House lawn.

But while Doiron admits the White House campaign was a big publicity boost for his efforts and the mission of his organization, Kitchen Gardeners International, he said he’s just as interested in convincing his neighbors — and anyone else with soil space — of the idea.

He chuckled at the suggestion he is involved in a large-scale “rebranding” of residential gardens, trying to battle perceptions of the small plots as tedious time-swallowers and advocating for them as the rewarding future of family eating. But he owned it. For Doiron, it could be said that homegrown greens are the new black.

“That was a significant accomplishment for KGI to pull that off,” Doiron said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News on Monday. “If we’ve seen a real uptick in kitchen gardens nationwide over the past couple of years, a part of that is because we got a garden on the White House lawn and we have a first lady who gets it. … But we still have a long way to go. My message now is sort of changing from, ‘We need to plant gardens’ to ‘We need to plant more gardens and we need to plant more efficient gardens.’”

Kitchen Gardeners International is now advocating for working gardens at schools and in central neighborhood locations, and not just because the “locavore” thing is trendy, Doiron said. The smaller units of agriculture may be key to sustaining the human race, he said. The organization includes an online network of 20,000 gardeners in more than 100 countries devoted to promotion of the gardens.

“The stakes are globally very, very high for this,” said Doiron, one of the speakers at Saturday’s TEDxDirigo event in Portland. “In order to meet the nutritional needs of a population of 9 billion, [the world’s estimated population in 2050], we’re going to need to grow more food over the next 40 to 50 years than we’ve grown over the past 10,000 years.”

With the size of the world’s oil supply draining, the costs of doing business for industrial farming operations will increase, he reasoned, and so will the costs of the food being generated. Residential gardens that recall the Victory Garden movements during the World Wars will be necessary to relieve pressure on the global food supply, Doiron said, and to further make the average person’s grocery bill tolerable.

The aforementioned Victory Gardens, at one point, produced 40 percent of the vegetables Americans ate. Today, Doiron estimated, residential gardens are likely responsible for 2 to 3 percent. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ World Food Price Index indicates that the cost of food has increased by 26 percent just in the last year.

The Scarborough man, who spent six years working abroad for Friends of the Earth International before returning home to Maine in 2001, said his family of five saves between $2,200 and $2,500 by growing all of their own vegetables at home.

“Even though people tend to think of gardens as these small blips, I started to think that if we could promote this at a much larger scale, we could start some real social change,” Doiron said. “I’m not suggesting that we’re going to feed the world just with kitchen gardens, but it’s going to be a really important piece of the puzzle.”

He jokingly called KGI’s efforts to promote gardens at schools as “a subversive plot,” pun very much intended, in which kids get familiar with growing their own veggietables and bringing the operations home with them.

“I picture these kids going home in June with seedlings saying, ‘Mommy, Daddy, where are we going to put these?’” Doiron said. “As a parent, you can’t say, ‘no.’”

In addition to the garden-by-garden advocacy, Doiron is calling for “garden activists” to take a more active role in politics.

He said the U.S. Farm Bill, the overarching federal agriculture bill that is reconsidered every five years or so, “spends billions and billions each year on things I don’t think the average American would approve of if they were aware of it.”

Doiron lamented the current bill’s expenditures on “commodity crops,” primarily large stockpiles of corn, cotton, wheat and soy beans. He argued the federal spending focuses too specifically on those crops, and not enough on the other healthy vegetables people need to eat.

“We need to wake people up — it’s not so much a case of us not having enough money,” he said. “We have the resources we need. They’re just being misallocated right now. We have to concentrate on federal policies that really benefit people, not just big corporations.”

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