MADISON, Miss. -- When Nick Thompson of Madison was growing up on the Gulf Coast, he preferred his backyard to the beach.
He loved planting seeds in the garden there, harvesting tomatoes, green peppers and yellow squash.
It's a childhood experience Thompson is passing on to his 12-year-old son, Nicholas. It's also a hobby enjoyed by wife Nancy. So far this summer, the Thompson family has harvested from their sprawling backyard garden corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, okra, squash, tomatoes, and bell pepper, cucumber and pole butter beans.
"I tell parents to make a family project out of growing vegetables," said Thompson, who owns Madison Garden and Landscaping. "Teach your children how to garden, even it it's just a single tomato plant in a backyard container. This could be the most meaningful skill you pass on to them."
First lady Michelle Obama made headlines in 2009 when she broke ground on a 1,100-square-foot organic "kitchen garden" on the south lawn of the White House. The fruits of her labor have provided food for the first family and Miriam's Kitchen, an organization that serves homeless people in the District of Columbia.
David Nagel, a Mississippi State University Extension Service horticulturist and instructor, said interest in vegetable gardening has been rising in recent years.
"Today, more people are gardening for enjoyment and as a viable, safe food source," Nagel said. "And, as the economy worsened, many found they could feed their family by simply growing their own food."
That's a lesson veteran gardener John Monroe of Purvis learned long ago.
Monroe, district manager for Lamar County Conservation District, was raised near Lucedale. He and his father took advantage of "rich, George County soil" and grew a wide variety of vegetables that fed the large family.
Thompson said Nicholas was introduced to gardening as a toddler. After becoming enamored with his father's hobby, he lost interest as he grew older and became involved in sports. This year, a renewed interest in the family vegetable garden pleased his father.
"I'm glad he wanted to help with the garden this year," Thompson said. "At his age, it's good for him to be outdoors. Gardening also affords some private time for him. And, he enjoys having his mother prepare dinner using the vegetables he's grown."
Regular row-crop gardening practiced by the Thompsons has been around for centuries. But new innovations, including planter boxes raised several inches from the ground, are making it easier for anyone to take up gardening, including children, seniors and those with disabilities.
One of the most popular gardening inventions is EarthBox planters. These self-contained, movable boxes contain a screen, watering tube and cover, which prevent weeds from growing along with the vegetables.
The design has many loyalists, including gardening veterans like Monroe. Monroe has been using EarthBoxes and self-constructed raised beds for several years. He finds them infinitely more versatile than in-ground gardens.
"There aren't many limitations with this type of gardening," said Monroe, who uses 36 EarthBoxes and nine raised beds to grow vegetables year-round. "You can plant anything in them you can plant in a traditional garden.
"This summer, I grew tomatoes, okra, corn, squash, bell and banana peppers and eggplant. In the fall, I'll harvest broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collards, turnips and mustard."
Marketed on its website as "a garden that grows on the deck, in the yard, even in the house," an EarthBox container system costs $29.95.
Made of plastic, they are about 30 inches long, 15 inches wide and 11 inches deep. Each box holds two cubic feet of soil and 2.3 gallons of water.
A longtime soil conservationist, Monroe appreciates the ecological advances of raised beds. He said there are other benefits.
"The other day, an 80-year-old friend came out and sat on the edge of one of my raised beds, which are fashioned for sitting and quite comfortable," he said. "Allowing others to enjoy the sight and the fruits of your garden is the perfect way to illustrate conservation of natural resources."