News & Politics

What It’s Like When the First Lady Pays a Surprise Visit to Your Garden

First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off a nationwide gardening tour this week, as part of her Let’s Move campaign. And the first garden she visited was in Brookland, DC, at the home of Eriks Brolis and his wife, Linda Bilsens—who thought the cameras were there to film an HGTV segment on urban gardening.

“We got a call from a Home and Garden TV producer, and then last week I met her, and she brought a few people with her,” recalls Brolis. “Then the next day, she brought more people. Each time, more and more people are showing up at my house—finally it was 9, 10 people. Nobody identified themselves as Secret Service or Michelle Obama’s staff. The day of the shoot arrives, and those 9, 10 people turn into 12 then 15 then 20 people. They’re setting up four, five cameras, and still photographers. I really at this point was asking, ‘Who are you?’ I was asking each person to identify their position. And they’d say, ‘Uh, producer.’ ”

The mystery was solved as soon as the cameras began to roll. While Brolis was talking about his garden’s clay soil, the First Lady walked up behind him and his wife. “We were in disbelief,” he says. “And then it was a hugfest from then on out. She hugged us three, four times. We hugged her staff. We hugged the camera crew.”

Brolis isn’t just any back-yard gardener. He and his brother, Andrejs, started a company called Urban Farm Plans, which offers garden design and installation, and which teaches workshops to help other urbanites who want to grow their own soil and their own produce. The passion for composting and growing their own food runs deep in the family: Linda works at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, while Andrejs’s fiancé, Nadia Mercer, is a manager at Washington Youth Garden.

According to Brolis, the First Lady spent 25 minutes walking around the 2,500-square-foot garden—where some 250 heads of garlic are just now coming up along with about 10 kale plants. She even helped turn the compost. “I was absolutely floored and tickled that she wanted to look at our compost,” he says.

At the end of the video, Michelle Obama calls them “champions” for the work they’re doing. “That moment when she said that still gives me goosebumps,” Brolis says. “My sister has watched the video at least a dozen times and says she tears up each time. We’re so deeply, deeply honored.”

The First Lady invited the family to the White House, and they plan to go in a few months. “She said, ‘Come and we’ll play in the garden,’ ” Brolis says. “I think we plan to offer to plant some seeds and help her flip the compost.” Uh, don’t they have staff to do that? Says Brolis: “Yeah, they probably do. But it feels odd for us to go to a garden and not do some work.”

Executive Editor

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986. She is the editor in charge of such consumer topics as travel, fitness, health, finance, and beauty, as well as the editor who handles such cover stories as Great Places to Work, Best of Washington, Day Trips, Hidden Gems, Top Doctors, and Great Small Towns. She lives in DC.