Lingering downturn helps keep gardening boom going

Many of the millions of people who turned to gardening to save money during the recession appear to be sticking with it during the recovery as food prices remain high and interest in safe, fresh and local food grows nationwide.

Forty-three million American households planned to grow at least some of their own food in 2009, a 19 percent increase from the estimated 36 million who did the year before, said the National Gardening Association, citing the most recent figures available. Spending on food gardening — including growing vegetables, fruit trees, berries and herbs — jumped 20 percent in one year to $3 billion in 2009 and stayed at that level last year, said Bruce Butterfield, research director for the nonprofit association.

"It's a perfect storm for food gardening," Butterfield said, noting the downturn coincided with growing interest nationwide in eating locally produced food.

While the recession started in December 2007, he said the economy really "tanked" at the end of 2008, fueling the gardening boom the following year. And, Butterfield said he expects the trend to continue with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's switch from a food pyramid representing its nutritional guidelines to a plate encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and people spending more time at home, either because they're unemployed or avoiding expensive vacations.

"A lot of folks, I think they kind of look at the evening news or read the paper or read something online, saying 'Jesus, this world is out of control and I can't have any influence on what happens out there but, by God, I can control what happens in my backyard,'" he said.

Seed supplier W. Atlee Burpee & Co. said its sales of vegetables seeds and starter plants have jumped substantially in the past several years, with 30 percent growth in 2009, 15 percent to 20 percent growth last year and another bump in March. The company based in Warminster, Penn., speculated recent rises in gas and produce prices have prompted more people to try to save money by growing their own food.

Ann Janda, 43, of Hinesburg, Vt., estimated gardening saves her and her husband $75 a month on groceries about eight months out of the year. They rarely buy any vegetables from June to August, relying on their 16-by-50-foot garden to feed them. In the fall, they use tomato preserves for a lot of what they cook, and they freeze and can vegetables to use in the winter — everything from pickles to tomato sauce, frozen peas, pesto and kale.

Janda, who planted her first garden when she moved out of the city four years ago, said it's easy to "overspend" on supplies and equipment, but she and her husband try to do it as cheaply as possible. They use dead elm saplings from nearby woods as stakes, start most of their plants from seeds in reusable pots and trade seedlings with other gardeners. Their tools are a spade, shovel and hoe, and their landlord tills the garden for them in exchange for vegetables later on.

"We are very economical gardeners and you can do that. You don't have to buy all kinds of expensive equipment to have a nice garden," said Janda, who learned a lot about gardening on the Internet and just completed a 13-week intensive master gardening course through the University of Vermont extension service. This year, the couple's main expense was $180 in compost.

But, Janda said savings isn't the only reason she and her husband garden.

"It's just so fun harvesting your own food," she said, adding that one reason they haven't bought a home yet is that they want one with suitable garden space with full sun.

"It's a real issue because it's a big part of my life now," she said. "I couldn't live without it."

With more novice gardeners nationwide, teachers report classes are filling up. Food gardening classes in Chatham County, N.C., for example, have doubled in size in the past five years.

"I've noticed just about any classes that I do that involve edible foods, the number has been up, to the point that I scheduled a specific class on just berries," said Al Cooke, an agricultural extension agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Chatham County Center in Pittsboro, N.C.

And for some people, gardening has provided a new career path. Chef Courtney Contos, 37, of Essex Junction, Vt., said it was natural for her to start growing her own vegetables and herbs three years ago because she was always searching for the best-tasting ingredients. But having seen the savings and with the economy still struggling, she now hopes to teach others how to grow, preserve and cook their own vegetables.

"It's just so simple," she said, "and I can't believe more people don't do it now, you know, because they complain about the prices and it's like, 'Come on, I've had like 70 salads out of my garden already that would have cost me quite a bit of money.'"