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Seed sales spring up

To save money, more people are buying seeds to grow their own vegetable gardens.

By Adrian HigginsFor The Washington Post / June 19, 2009

Seed packets are flying off shelves. Nationwide, seed producers and merchants have reported an increased demand for staples such as lettuce, potatoes, and beans.

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In 1784, an Englishman named David Landreth opened a seed store in downtown Philadelphia, confident that newly independent Americans would also want the freedom to grow their own food.

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The D. Landreth Seed Co., one of the oldest surviving corporations in the nation, has seen several owners and many shifts in its fortunes in the intervening 225 years. But if Landreth were looking down on his enterprise today, he probably would be grinning. After years in the doldrums, the consumer demand for vegetable seeds has abruptly climbed at a rate even industry veterans have never seen.

This spring, sales at Landreth are "up 75 percent over last year," said Barbara Melera, a former venture capitalist who bought the company in 2003. Moving between the shelves of bulk seed containers in her warehouse in New Freedom, Pa., she pointed out varieties that are almost sold out: Detroit Dark Red beets, Danvers Half Long carrots, Bloomsdale Long Standing spinach. She had no kale or a popular beet variety, Lutz. "We have a modest amount of beans left.

Seed producers and merchants across the United States are reporting the same phenomenon of crazy demand and even some shortages, especially of staples like beans, potatoes and lettuces. Sales of seed packets picked up last year and have grown significantly again this season, which runs from January to June.

Industry observers attribute the boost in sales to a concern for food safety following outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisonings and a desire by consumers to be a part of the local food movement. Michelle Obama's new vegetable garden at the White House may also be inspiring people, they said.

But the primary reasons, they speculate, are the recession, income loss and the need for people to lower their grocery bills by growing their own.

In late April, Greg Frandano, a 35-year-old bartender, ripped up part of his lawn to extend his vegetable garden in the rear yard of his brick Cape Cod in Falls Church, Va. "We hardly buy any produce when things are cooking," he said, as he worked composted leaves into the clay soil before planting. He started the garden four years ago and has enlarged it every spring since to feed his family of four.

At four community gardens in Reston, Va., coordinator Deana Demichelis said the wait list for 250 plots has climbed to 140 names, a backlog of about three years. "New gardeners are begging to get in because of the recession and the fact they can save money growing their own food," she said.

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