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Cropping up in the capital

FRANKFORT — The most important thing about having a garden is to just enjoy it, at least according to first lady Jane Beshear. And, as the harvesting season really gets into full swing, Beshear is following her own advice.

"My favorite is the fresh tomatoes," she said.

What makes first Governor's Garden special is that it encourages others to follow her lead.

When first lady Michelle Obama planted a garden at the White House, "it enticed a lot of people's interest," Beshear said. "We wanted to do something like it, but we decided there wasn't enough room at the Governor's Mansion."

The grounds of the state-owned Berry Mansion, a two-minute drive from the Governor's Mansion at 700 Louisville Road, seemed the perfect location for the Governor's Garden. Students from Kentucky State University broke ground for three plots, and the first seeds were planted May 21.

Less than two months later, corn tassels are waving alongside peppers, melons, beans and cabbages. Green tomatoes are turning crimson, and the summer squash and zucchini vines are loaded.

Two of the garden's 16-by-24-foot plots are under the care of the Franklin County Council of Garden Clubs and members of the Western Hills High School Future Farmers of America chapter. The third plot is a fall garden tended by KSU students.

"The majority of work has been done by volunteers. These straight rows are their work," said Steve Meredith, who works for the Finance and Administration Cabinet and is the project manager for the garden.

Meredith said the FFA members in particular have benefited from the chance to tend the garden.

"This is a chance for them to apply what they have learned in their agriculture classes," said Jonathan Miller, secretary of the state Finance and Administration Cabinet.

"It's the young generation who are leading the charge to protect the environment, so this is a very important opportunity for them to learn important ways to lessen our impact."

Even after the FFA members have finished weeding and harvesting, they aren't done for the day. Most of the produce is taken to a Frankfort soup kitchen, where the FFA members help prepare and serve the vegetables.

"I hadn't done any gardening before this, so this has been a really fun opportunity," said Desiree Riley, 16, vice president of the FFA chapter. "This is a really great way to give back to the community."

Said Meredith: "We wanted to show people don't have to live on 100 acres to have a garden. We put up a fence, which increased the total cost of the garden, but without the fence this is a $30 to $40 garden. It's a wonderful chance to get some exercise and enjoy some fresh vegetables."

Meredith also emphasized how therapeutic growing a garden could be for all concerned. It was clear, as he picked bright-yellow squash and fingered the growing corn tassels, that he was taking his own counsel to heart.

Gardening might seem like nothing more than an enjoyable hobby, but Beshear sees her garden as part of a larger plan to protect the well-being of Kentuckians and the environment.

"Our state does not have the best record for the health of our citizens," she said. "It's so beneficial to concentrate on eating fresh vegetables. This is also a wonderful way to improve people's concern for the state of the environment by working with the earth itself."

The garden is only one component of the first lady's Green Team campaign to encourage Kentuckians to make small but critical changes that will lead to more sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyles.

"We've replaced many of the light bulbs in the Governor's Mansion with energy-efficient ones, and I keep the air conditioning at least as high as 74 degrees," she said.

At her family home, Beshear said she turned off the air conditioning and opened the doors to get the fresh air. Until the move to the Governor's Mansion, she kept a private garden.

"I can't imagine not having a garden," Beshear said.