In a time of economic hardship, more and more Americans are choosing to tend their own gardens, literally. Bruce Butterfield, research director at the National Gardening Association (NGA), says that vegetable gardening is on the rise across the nation, according to the New York Times. George Ball, chief executive of Burpee, one of the US’s largest vegetable-seed retailers, says that sales have “skyrocketed,” adding that “the jump began around the time Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, when anxiety about money started to rise.”
Specifically, the NGA says that “seven million more households plan to grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, or berries in 2009 than in 2008, a 19 percent increase in participation.” 2007 to 2008 saw a 10 percent increase in vegetable gardening. Butterfield also says that purveyors of gardening supplies have seen an increase in sales in the past two years. The main reasons people give for starting to garden are:
34 percent of households cited the current recession as “motivating them very much (14 percent) or a fair amount (20 percent).” The NGA estimates that “on average a well-maintained food garden yields a $500 return when considering a typical gardener’s investment and the market price of produce.”
In rural America especially, people are turning to gardening largely for economic reasons. In some cases, not only are they putting food on their own tables; they’re also selling the surplus to supplement their incomes:
Rebecca Frazier, a teacher here, said she had cut her food bill in half by growing her own and preserving and by buying in bulk from local farmers. She recently paid $10 for 40 pounds of sweet potatoes, a fraction of the store price.
“I’m getting twice the food for a whole lot less money,” she said.
61-year-old Wanda Hamilton, described as a “lifelong gardener who sells her surplus vegetables at the farmers’ market in West Liberty” in the Appalachian foothills, says that nearly two-thirds of her customers are elderly residents who use government vouchers.
56-year-old Brenda Engle, who works in an apparel factory, notes a reason for gardening that goes beyond putting food on the table and extra money in one’s pockets: Gardening as therapy. “When I’m in the garden, the world is gone,” says Engle.
Perhaps feeling the pull of my ancestors — all peasant farmers in southern China — I’ve long wanted to start a vegetable garden in our backyard. I still remember the extensive vegetables garden my parents planted at our new tract home in suburban northern California. There were zucchini, tomatoes, Chinese melons, eggplant, carrots and the sunflower I had started growing in a Dixie cup in Mrs. Leonard’s first-grade class. We made lots of trips to a gardening store called Navlet’s and to this day the scent of soil and plants, and the sight of racks of seeds for vegetables and flowers, are comforting. Sadly, we had to let the whole garden go during a drought and I used to wander sadly through the desiccated brown rows. Soon after, we moved back to Oakland and the vegetable garden never came back.
Right now, my New Jersey backyard is on the soggy, pond-y side after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Leo. Vegetables prices keep going up and up: I’d say it’s high time for me to follow Frazier and Engle’s example and revive the memory of that long-gone vegetable garden in our California backyard.
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