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Video: It’s a growing trend

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 4/3/2009 4:07:55 PM ET 2009-04-03T20:07:55

Hoe in hand, Kate Kinne works her field on a cold March day.

“I do seven kinds of berries,” Kinne said. “I have an apple tree, [a] fig tree, all vegetables, eggs.”

All that production notwithstanding, Kinne’s farm doesn’t stretch over acres of rolling land. In fact, it isn’t a farm at all. It’s the small backyard of her house in Portland, Ore.

Kinne is part of a growing movement of Americans who are turning to their own resources to fight the economic recession, now in its 16th month. As paychecks and job opportunities shrink in tandem with rising prices at the store, more and more households are growing their own food in their backyards, in shared community-run gardens and even on their windowsills.

Kinne estimates that her garden saves her at least a $150 a month in grocery bills. And that doesn’t include the money she saves on services from professionals whom she pays with the fresh food she grows and the labor she provides helping them plant their own gardens.

“I do a chiropractor and a massage therapist, so pretty much my whole health care is taken care of,” Kinne said.

The National Gardening Association, a nonprofit research group based in South Burlington, Vt., projects that 43 million of the nation’s 111 million households will grow at least some of their own fruits, vegetables, berries and herbs this year — a rise of more than 19 percent over last year. More than half — 54 percent — said they were looking to save on their food bills, the association said in its annual report on home and community gardening in the United States.

Seed industry bucks the tough times
“They’re calling them ‘recession gardens’ because of the economic crisis we’re in right now,” said Brad Melzor, a gardener with the Ohio State University Extension service.

The plots are explicitly modeled on the Victory Gardens many Americans planted during World War II. And the trend is showing up in sales figures for garden shops and seed suppliers.

W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the nation’s largest seed retailer, projects sales will jump by as much as 20 percent this year, which is leading to a boom in business at the local garden store.

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“With the interest, we just can’t keep them on the shelf,” said Tyler Reynolds, manager of Zamzows Garden Centers in Boise, Idaho. Across the city, garden stores report a 40 percent jump in seed sales this year.

At Al’s Garden Center in Sherwood, Ore., “we planned for more, and we’re even outselling what we planned for,” said Mark Bigej, a gardening expert at the store.

“Last year, we saw a trend in the edibles,” Bigej said. “People started planting more edibles gardening themselves, and this year we’re seeing more.”

More than 80 people showed up recently for a vegetable garden class at Paulino Gardens in Denver, where seed sales have risen nearly 30 percent this year, said John Smith, the store’s garden manager.

‘You can quickly calculate the savings’
Part of the boom can be attributed to advances in seed technology that allow home gardeners to harvest a sizable yield from a very small amount of space.

The National Gardening Association said its survey, conducted in January by Harris Interactive Inc., showed that 57 percent of American home gardens were smaller than 100 square feet. It projected that the average garden could produce 300 pounds of fresh produce worth $600, a return of $530 based on an average investment of $70.

A family can plant a garden “anywhere — on an apartment terrace or in a south-facing window,” said Wendy Hanson Mazet, a master gardener with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Service.

“And you can do it in small containers,” Mazet said. “Peas don’t take up much room — you just have to give them some upward lift — and leaf lettuce is easy, too. You just clip it with a pair of scissors, and it keeps on reproducing.”

Cheryl Carson of Atlanta said she planted just 56 square feet last year and “probably [grew] 50 percent of the produce my family ate from spring until the fall.”

“I can put 16 carrots in one square foot,” Carson said. “That means a seed packet could literally last me — if I could keep them viable — 20 years. One seed packet for $2.”

Curt Holmquist of Minneapolis, Minn., also did the math, and he was sold.

“I’ve seen packages of three bell peppers for $2.69 in the store,” Holmquist said. “And we’ve had plants that produce 30 of those. So you can quite quickly calculate the savings.”

Initial investment can be costly
Experts warn, however, that maintaining a home garden isn’t as easy as it looks, and they say you shouldn’t expect to save quite as much money as the catalogs and the salesmen tout.

“There is a lot to plan for before you ever put a shovel in the ground,” said Keith Funk of Gard’n Wise Distributors Inc. in Denver, where he hosts a gardening radio show.

Productive gardening requires much more than just putting seeds in dirt, Funk said, ticking off some of the variables: “soil prep, what you need for light, what varieties to choose, how much to plant for a family of four.”

There’s also the initial investment, which can be considerable, he said.

“Especially with the cost of water and fertilizer and compost and getting everything ready to go — if you are having to buy tools and those sorts of things — it can be fairly expensive to start up with,” Funk said. “There is some money involved.”

Ken Creel, a regional master gardener program coordinator with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, acknowledged that once you get up and going, “you may end up saving money down the road.”

In the first year, however, it’s likely that “you’re not going to save any money, and it may end up costing more,” he said.

But dedicated home gardeners say the eventual rewards are worth the trouble.

“Gardening is our passion in our family,” Michele Kommen said as she shopped at Bachman’s Floral, Gift & Garden in Richfield, Minn. “And it’s never too young to start. That’s why I’ve got the boys along with me to get some seeds.”

Vick Andrews of Boise, Idaho, grows so much of her own food that she said she could feed her family for three months just on what came out of her garden.

“I have a calm and peace, and I know if my husband lost his job or if he got sick and couldn’t provide for us, we could survive for a while,” Andrews said.

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