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.

Mark Thomson
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.’

Think of it as a modern-day Victory Garden.

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.

Indeed, the rush to plant was so great this year at the two-acre urban garden that the management put in four more plots for newcomers.

To be sure, food security (especially with the 2006 spinach scares), a rising demand for locally grown organic food, and taste are big factors in the garden movement. But it was $4 bowls of edamame, or soybeans, that caused Ms. Van Parys to reconsider the kind of impact even a small vegetable garden can have on a household budget. "You get more bang for your buck out of a seed packet," she says. [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong date.]

That's a message that appears to be resonating nationally. At the Garden Writers Association, which surveys people annually to see how they plan to spend their gardening dollars, there was genuine surprise at the big increase in preference for vegetable gardens. For years, the top three on the list were lawns, annuals, and perennials, with vegetable gardening a distant fourth. This year, vegetable gardening jumped to No. 2.

"You've got a double whammy: The cost of food is going up disproportionately, and so is the price of gas to go get it," says Robert LaGasse, executive director of the Garden Writers Association in Manassas, Va. "With a garden, there's the cost savings, and add to it the time savings to walk out your back door and pull a couple of tomatoes from the garden for dinner tonight. It's wholesome, convenient, and you know what was done to it."

That's exactly the message that folks at the National Garden Bureau in Downer's Grove, Ill., have been promoting for years. The nonprofit educational organization, which is funded primarily by seed distributors, is hoping that this year's spike in vegetable gardening could jump-start a long-term trend.

"Once people taste their home-grown tomatoes and basil and cucumbers, they're not going to go back and buy a store-bought one," says Nona Koivula, the garden bureau's executive director. "The taste is so much better, and the nutrition is there, too."

But like other garden experts, Ms. Koivula believes there's also something more powerful and less tangible coming into play. "There are a lot of different reasons to garden this particular year, but I do think there's also this innate desire in all of us to actually put seed in the ground because that's how we all fed ourselves years ago," she says.

Back in Killingworth, Francis Barkyoumb couldn't agree more. He's been gardening since he was a little boy, with his father and his grandfather. "Just growing stuff, being outside, nature, getting your hands dirty, teaching the kids about getting their hands dirty, being one with the earth generation after generation: That's why I garden," he says.

Decatur mom Jerilynn Bedingfield agrees that there's something special about gardening.

"I just think that it's just a happy place to come," she says. "I go to the garden to find my peace of mind."

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