Last week, Sally Ganem, Nebraska's first lady, was offering visitors to a public open house a taste of Armenian cucumbers grown in the governor’s residence backyard. These rippled and oddly shaped cucurbits were a new addition to the state’s vegetable garden.
And Ganem has found them to be a tasty choice. They will be on the planting list for next spring.
The garden plot, just off the kitchen back door and in the shadow of the Sower on the dome of the state Capitol, is a fairly new addition to the expansive landscaping. It’s a practical application of urban gardening, which is growing in popularity.
Ingrid Kirst, executive director of Community CROPS, said she believed more people are interested in gardening for a variety of reasons. In addition to the economical value of home-grown produce, many people like the idea of knowing exactly where their food comes from, she said.
Community CROPS, which has 13 garden sites across Lincoln, provides garden experiences for about 700 people, Kirst said. And like the governor’s plot, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash are among the most popular plants grown.
The governor’s residence plot has expanded this year, Ganem said. It began two years ago in an area that originally was landscaped for hybrid tea roses. After a round of disease and other problems, the roses were removed and half of the space was replaced with herbs, which Ganem enjoys using in a variety of recipes.
The herbs flourished, so this year the garden space has expanded with more herbs and some vegetables. Herbs included basil, marjoram, oregano, sage, dill and lavender.
They started many of the plants from seed, Ganem said, adding some basics and trying some more unusual produce varieties, such as the Armenian cucumbers.
So far so good. The first round of crops has already been rotated out, with zucchini and lettuce being pulled after they had reached their prime, said Ganem. Those spots will be filled with some cool-weather fall crops and probably more lettuce.
On any given day this summer, guests of Gov. Dave Heineman and Ganem may be served fresh tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers from the vegetable garden. Chef Kathryn Henning said she uses the garden, in some way, every day. The herbs have been especially valuable for use in some of Ganem’s favorite dishes, such as Lebanese rice and Lebanese potato salad.
And they no longer have to purchase parsley, which is always used as a garnish. “We go through a lot of parsley,” Henning said.
The vegetable/herb garden is a nice addendum to the rest of the residence landscaping, which is a mix of native and adapted plants in a semi-formal setting. Completed in 2001, the grounds were completely relandscaped at the same time the front gates and fence were added for security, and the area became completely accessible for guests with disabilities.
Kim Todd, University of Nebraska-Lincoln horticulture program associate professor who coordinated the landscape design at that time, remembers that then-first lady Stephanie Johanns wanted Nebraska-style plantings and something that worked equally well for small groups or 500 people seated under a tent in the backyard.
Much of the plant material was donated and now, more than a decade later, has matured. The backyard has tall prairie grasses, an assortment of water-wise perennials and some rugosa and champlain roses. With the help of Master Gardener volunteers who work twice a week to deadhead and weed, the landscape coordinates beautifully with the sculptural in-ground fountain and now the adjacent vegetable garden. Additional grounds work is done by inmates from the Community Corrections Centers.