From the NY TIMES: MARIAN BURROS
CASSANDRA FEELEY prefers organic ingredients, especially for her baby, but she finds it hard to manage on her husband’s salary as an Army sergeant. So this year she did something she has wanted to do for a long time: she planted vegetables in her yard to save money.
“One organic cucumber is $3 and I can produce it for pennies,” she said.
For her first garden, Ms. Feeley has gone whole hog, hand-tilling a quarter acre in the backyard of her house near the Fort Campbell Army base in Kentucky. She has put in 15 tomato plants, five rows of corn, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, peas, watermelon, green beans. An old barn on the property has been converted to a chicken coop, its residents arriving next month; the goats will be arriving next year.
“I spent $100 on it and I know I will save at least $75 a month on food,” she said.
She is one of the growing number of Americans who, driven by higher grocery costs and a stumbling economy, have taken up vegetable gardening for the first time. Others have increased the size of their existing gardens.
Seed companies and garden shops say that not since the rampant inflation of the 1970s has there been such an uptick in interest in growing food at home. Space in community gardens across the country has been sold out for several months. In Austin, Tex., some of the gardens have a three-year waiting list.
George C. Ball Jr., owner of the W. Atlee Burpee Company, said sales of vegetable and herb seeds and plants are up by 40 percent over last year, double the annual growth for the last five years. “You don’t see this kind of thing but once in a career,” he said. Mr. Ball offers half a dozen reasons for the phenomenon, some of which have been building for the last few years, like taste, health and food safety, plus concern, especially among young people, about global warming.
But, Mr. Ball said, “The big one is the price spike.” The striking rise in the cost of staples like bread and milk has been accompanied by increases in the price of fruits and vegetables.
“Food prices have spiked because of fuel prices and they redounded to the benefit of the garden,” Mr. Ball said. “People are driving less, taking fewer vacations, so there is more time to garden.”
Each spring for the last five years, the Garden Writers Association has had TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, a polling firm, conduct a national consumer telephone survey asking gardeners what makes up the greatest share of their garden budgets. “The historic priorities are lawns, annuals, perennials, then vegetables, followed by trees and shrubs,” said Robert LaGasse, executive director of the association. This year, vegetables went from fourth place to second, which Mr. LaGasse called “an enormous attitude shift.”
People like Rita Gartin of Ames, Iowa, are part of that shift. Last year she kept a small garden. This year it has tripled in size into a five-by-seven-foot plot because, Ms. Gartin said, “The cost of everything is going up and I was looking to lose a few pounds, too; so it’s a win-win situation all around.”
Ms. Gartin, who fits gardening into her 12-hour workday as an interior designer and property manager, is not intimidated by the 20 kinds of vegetables she has planted: she was raised on a farm with a giant garden. A fence has been erected to keep the deer and people out, and it’s where the pole beans and snap peas are already climbing.
She is ready to take a stab at canning, but reserves the right to freeze everything instead, she said.
“I probably spent maybe $50 for everything and that’s less than a week’s cost of groceries or the price of a gym,” she said.
Seed companies and garden centers say they didn’t see the rush coming. There wasn’t any buildup last year, said Barbara Melera, the co-owner of the D. Landreth Seed Company in New Freedom, Pa., who takes the pulse of gardeners at the 13 garden shows she attends around the country each year.
“We pack for all the shows and bring 16 different beans, 10 packets for each kind,” Ms. Melera said. In earlier years, by the time the shows end in March, she said, “we are lucky if we have sold two of the 10 packets.”
“This year,” she said, “we sold out the first show and literally sold hundreds. We never sell any corn; this year we sold out of corn by the end of the season. We saw the same thing in the mail order business.”
She said the greatest demand was for what she calls “survival vegetables”: peas, beans, corn, beets, carrots, broccoli, kale, spinach and the lettuces. “It was so different from what it has been in prior years,” she added.
Randy Martell, one of the owners of the Garden Factory in Rochester, says it isn’t just vegetables. “The potted fruit trees were sold out by the first week of May,” he said. “Blueberries, raspberries and grapes are sold out. I think those sales have doubled. Overall sales are up about 30 percent.”
Dottie Wright, greenhouse manager at one of the Dammann’s Lawn, Garden and Landscaping Centers in Indianapolis, said she talks to people every day who are starting their first vegetable garden. “If they don’t have a yard they try containers for tomatoes and herbs. We can’t keep the herbs in this year.”
Thrilled as gardening experts are about this phenomenon, they know that many first timers don’t have any idea how much sweat equity is involved.
“Many people I sold seeds to have never gardened before,” Ms. Melera said, “and we have to find a way to educate them so the experience is successful. They have got to be taught.”
Mr. Ball of Burpee knows some of the new gardeners won’t stick with gardening beyond the first year. “Some people can’t get with the idea of digging a hole; getting buggy, sticky and hot,” he said. “Gardening is an active hobby; it’s a commitment.”
Doreen G. Howard, a former garden editor for Woman’s Day and now a writer for The American Gardener, is one of the committed. She has had a vegetable garden for most of the last 25 years. This year she has quadrupled the size of her vegetable plot in Roscoe, Ill., because of the economy and because she thinks the quality of store-bought produce has deteriorated. Once vegetables were just 5 percent of her garden; now they are 20 percent.
“Food prices have gotten to the point where we are seeing the difference,” she said. “It’s pushing our budget and we are a two-income family. It was never a concern before.” Ms. Howard said her grocery bill for two went from $100 a week to $140 a week this year.
She has chosen many vegetables that freeze well, investing in a secondhand freezer to store the bounty. She plans to dry the herbs that grow on the back porch next to boxes of mesclun, and to make pickles from the cucumbers and raisins from the grapes — her newest addition. And she is looking forward to a cellar full of Peruvian blue potatoes.
Some of Ms. Howard’s increased harvest will also go to food pantries through an organization called Plant a Row for the Hungry, which encourages gardeners to plant extra vegetables to share with the poor.
“I’m hoping to take $20 a week off my grocery bill,” she said. This is in the low range, according to Mr. Ball, who says a $100 investment will produce $1,000 to $1,700 worth of vegetables.
Ms. Gartin, now in her second year, says gardening is worth the effort.
“I got soft calluses from hoeing and digging,” she said, adding cheerfully, “but my fingernails are still pretty — long and not chipped. I probably spent 30 hours putting the garden in, and when I’d come into the house I’d be covered in sweat. But now it’s pretty easy because of all the rain we’ve had.”
And the vegetables, she said, are “awesome.” “It’s a totally different flavor from what you buy in the store. It’s exciting to go out and pick the fruits of your labor.”