- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

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 nurseries all are reporting increases in the number of people buying vegetable seeds and starter plants.

The trend started slowly several years ago, spurred by concerns about food safety, food quality and global warming, garden mavens say. 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 back yards 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 just 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 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 Connecticut’s planting season has just begun. In fact, it’s still a little bit early on the 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,” Ms. 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, the nursery has seen 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 back yard,” says John Neely, 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 gardens’ center last month. People even had to be turned away. Chicks in the City, a class on raising chickens, also was packed. The crowd, which usually is made up of the retirement set, included lots of twenty- and thirtysomethings.

Indeed, the rush to plant was so great this year at the 2-acre urban garden spread that 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. It was, however, the $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.

That message 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. “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 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 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.”

Like other garden experts, Ms. Koivula believes something more powerful and less tangible also is 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.

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