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Victory Gardens Growing Anew

Urban gardeners dig in to beat the recession blues and help neighbors by growing fruits and vegetables.

“I’ve never dug a hole in my life,” Helen Mayberry confessed. “Frankly, I never really had my hand in dirt.”

Yet this spring, the 77-year-old retiree from Galena, Ill., was getting down and dirty. Along with dozens of her neighbors who were working on their hands and knees and with shovels and hoes, Mayberry was planting cucumbers, radishes, carrots, onions and, of course, tomatoes. Each neighbor had paid $25 for a 10-by-10 plot in a community garden taking shape on a donated acre of land, in this community of about 3,300 in the northwestern tip of the state.

As a newcomer to vegetable gardening, Mayberry is hardly alone. Across the country during this time of recession and economic anxiety, Americans of all ages are flocking into their gardens to grow their own food. Community-based gardening projects, similar to Galena’s, are taking shape in urban areas like Milwaukee, Denver and Warren, Mich.
Such “victory gardens” are reminiscent of those planted during World War I and World War II as a way to help put food on the table when resources were scarce.

More Food Gardeners

The numbers are impressive. This year, some 43 million U.S. households will grow vegetables, fruit or herbs—an increase of 7 million, or 19 percent from 2008, according to a study released in March by the National Gardening Association. And an estimated 21 percent of food gardeners will be first-timers like Mayberry.

Many of them cite the chilling effects of the recession, and the fact that gardening can reap financial rewards—a dollar invested in seeds and seedlings can yield more than $8 worth of produce, according to the March study. Others voice concerns over the purity and safety of food and think planting in the backyard can ensure that only wholesome products wind up on the dinner table. Still others see stretching and bending in the garden as a worthy supplement to huffing and puffing in the local gym. And as gasoline prices rise again, garden work is seen as an economical vacation from stress.

Growing to Give to Others

Growing your own food is also seen as a way to help others, especially as donations to local food banks and charities have fallen. Lori Murphy, of Murphy’s Gardens in Galena, said her business in vegetable seeds and starter plants has doubled in the past year, and said her store is now holding regular classes and encouraging people to join the Galena Community Garden.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever done this,” Murphy said. “The coolest part is that a group of master gardeners are going to grow whole rows of food to give to the local food pantry.”

Laurie Mattas, 61, a retired teacher in nearby Elizabeth, Ill., said a major motivation—besides the thrill of growing food—was to give fresh produce to the food bank, which usually can’t provide it. The demand for food from newly impoverished residents “is growing by leaps and bounds,” she said.

First-time planters

Many older gardeners also remember nostalgically how their parents and grandparents planted “victory gardens” during wartime to help put food on the table in tough times, and they figure they can do it, too.

“A lot of people tell us they are planting vegetables for the first time because of the economy,” said Doris Roth, who advises first-time gardeners at the sprawling East Bay Nursery in Berkeley, Calif. “Some of them don’t even know what they’re doing, but they want to plant vegetables anyway. Some varieties of tomatoes, we can’t even keep them on the shelf.”

Lee Serrie, 61, had to wait nearly a month for the seeds for a French hybrid tomato to arrive from a supply house in Maine. She intends to plant them in her backyard in Mendocino County, Calif.“People are turning to gardens as a way to weather this economic cycle,” said Serrie, who took up serious gardening after retiring from her job as a network TV camera person. “I basically am increasing the size of my garden by a third so that I can feed other people.”

"Astonishing" demand for seeds

George Ball Jr., the CEO of Burpee Seeds in Warminster, Pa., said his firm experienced an “astonishing” rise in demand for vegetable seeds this year. “Last year’s growth was sensational, but few expected demand would increase even more this year,” Ball said in an interview.
While the recession is a key factor in drawing new gardeners into the yard, the aging of the boomer generation is also fueling growth. “Most people start gardening in their 40s and never stop. Gardening is a 45- to 70-year-old prime-time activity,” he said.

And the fact that first lady Michelle Obama helped plant a vegetable garden at the White House didn’t hurt, Ball said.

“It’s the perfect storm,” he said. “There’s health, demographics, the money you save, food safety and environment—it’s all fashionable. But I really think that taste is on top of it all. The taste of a homegrown vegetable just isn’t comparable to anything else.”


Michael Zielenziger writes on economic and consumer issues for Bulletin Today.

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