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As food prices shoot up, so do backyard gardens

Gasoline and food price spikes have had what could be called a 'Miracle-Gro' effect on the backyard garden movement.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2008

Digging in: Marcie Curry tosses weeds to prepare a plot at a community garden in Boston. She and a friend have been planting vegetables here the past three years for family and friends, and she likes to see the ‘fruits of her labor.’

Mark Thomson

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KILLINGWORTH, Conn.; and DECATUR, GA.

Think of it as a modern-day Victory Garden.

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With gasoline prices soaring and food costs not far behind, the number of Americans planning to grow their own backyard vegetables this year is up sharply.

Gardening organizations, seed wholesalers, and local nurseries are all reporting hikes in the number of people buying vegetable seeds and starter plants.

It's a trend that started slowly several years ago, spurred by concerns about food safety, food quality, and global warming, say garden mavens. But this year's gasoline and food price spikes have had what could be called a "Miracle-Gro" effect on the backyard garden movement. This year, 39 percent of people with backyards told the Garden Writers Association they planned to grow vegetables this year. That's up 5 percent from last year, after remaining relatively stable with only small increases for much of the past decade.

"This is evolving into a perfect storm for vegetable gardening," says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist at the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt. "A lot of the economic things happening, and concerns are rising about global warming and carbon footprints, and so are worries about the quality of food, its price, and freshness – it's all come to a head."

At Running Brook Farms, a nursery in Killingworth, Conn., sales of plant seeds are already up, according to manager Louann Papoosha. Sales of starter plants have jumped as much as 20 percent this year, according to Ms. Papoosha, even though the planting season here has just begun. In fact, it's still a little bit early on the Connecticut coast for some of the more tender vegetables.

"But we are selling lots of lettuce, peas, and broccoli – the plants you can put out early," Papoosha says.

Early spring is also when many people plant trees. Last year, Running Brook sold maybe a half-dozen fruit trees, according to the staff. This year, there's been a "real heavy" run on apple, pear, and other fruit-bearing plants.

"Rather than just buying a decorative or ornamental, people are looking at fruit trees so they can have sustainable agriculture in their own backyard," says John Neely, who was busily pruning azaleas at Running Brook. "People are more inclined to get their hands dirty and have the profit of their work as opposed to just an ornamental type of planting."

Farther south, at the Oakhurst Community Gardens in urban Decatur, Ga., the gardening season is already "going gangbusters," says director Stephanie Van Parys.

The summer gardening class – usually reserved for about four or five people – filled the front room of the garden's center last month. They even had to turn people away. A class on how to raise "Chicks in the City" was also packed. And the crowd, which was usually made of the retirement set, included lots of 20- and 30-somethings.

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