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Grow your own as food prices skyrocket

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  • carmen_cebs
    The Vegetable Patch Takes Root By ANNE MARIE CHAKER June 5, 2008; Page D1 More families are looking right under their feet to ease the problem of high food
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 6, 2008
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      The Vegetable Patch Takes Root
      June 5, 2008; Page D1
      More families are looking right under their feet to ease the problem
      of high food prices.
      As consumers balk at the rising cost of groceries, homeowners
      increasingly are cutting out sections of lawn and retiring flower
      beds to grow their own food. They're building raised vegetable beds,
      turning their spare time over to gardening, and doing battle with
      insect pests.
      At Al's Garden Center in Portland, Ore., sales of vegetable plants
      this season have jumped an unprecedented 43% from a year earlier,
      and sales of fruit-producing trees and shrubs are up 17%. Sales of
      flower perennials, on the other hand, are down 16%. It's much the
      same story at Williams Nursery, Westfield, N.J., where total sales
      are down 4.6% even as herb and vegetable-plant sales have risen 16%.
      And in Austin, Texas, Great Outdoors reports sales of flowers
      slightly down, while sales of vegetables have risen 20% over last
      The grow-your-own trend comes as the price of food has skyrocketed.
      The government recently reported that April's 0.9% increase in food
      prices from the previous month was the fastest pace in 18 years -- a
      reflection of global pressures, from drought in Australia to
      increased demand in India and China.
      For Michele von Turkovich in South Burlington, Vt., those pressures
      hit home when she noticed her average grocery bill hit $800 a
      month. "I reached for the organic strawberries the other day and
      realized, 'I can't buy organic,' " says the research-lab technician
      and mother of three teenage daughters.
      After chatting with a neighbor who has a large garden, Ms. von
      Turkovich in April decided to dig up a 10-by-12-foot patch of lawn
      struggling on the side of her house to plant vegetables. Her
      neighbor helped her to think about making the best use of the space
      so that there would always be something in the garden to harvest.
      So far, the lettuce is an inch high, and she's looking forward to
      radishes in about a week. Also sprouting are about a dozen varieties
      of greens, including Swiss chard, kale, scallions and endive. A used
      soccer net serves as a makeshift trellis for the peas she is
      expecting. It's a lot of toil, though. Ms. von Turkovich says she
      typically spends at least an hour after work each day on her garden
      and about half the weekend. "It takes a significant amount of my
      spare time."
      Even before this year's food-price crunch, the vigor for veggies was
      already gaining momentum. An annual survey of more than 2,000
      households by the National Gardening Association shows the average
      amount spent per household on flowers was flat in 2007 compared with
      a year earlier. But spending on vegetable plants rose 21% to $58 per
      household last year, and spending on herbs gained 45% to $32.
      Bruce Butterfield, the association's research director, expects 2008
      will be another strong year for vegetable gardening thanks to "the
      combination of gas prices, food prices, and people staying at home
      because the world's gone crazy," he says. "At least they can have
      some control over their backyard."
      George Ball, chief executive of seed giant W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in
      Warminster, Pa., says he thinks the veggie-gardening rage is
      prompted by more than just food costs. His business has seen more
      baby boomers "entering their prime gardening years," he says. Now,
      this generation has "a lot of time, the rat race is over, a home
      that is likely to be their last, and kids past puberty," he says.
      Burpee's sales of vegetables and herbs are up about 40% this year,
      twice last year's growth rate. Tomatoes, summer squash, onions,
      cucumbers, peas and beans continue to be top sellers. "We're running
      out of things like onions, that you think would never be that hot
      and raging," he says.
      In West Columbia, S.C., Sarah Rosenbaum ripped up about a quarter of
      her family's landscaped yard to install six raised vegetable
      beds. "You get a pack of seeds for a dollar or two, and you have got
      a whole bed of organic vegetables for a fraction of what you'd pay
      at the store. And they taste better."
      The project got under way in early March when Ms. Rosenbaum, her
      partner and his 12-year-old twins started seeds indoors for all
      their vegetables -- from bok choy to zucchini. "We're out in the
      garden after work every day, pretty much" she says. "We love doing
      the work, so it doesn't really feel like work." She hopes the
      experience will also inspire the twins to eat more vegetables.
      To be sure, a new gardener can find himself plunking down a
      significant amount of money to get started. Ms. Rosenbaum says that
      the initial investment in her vegetable garden was around $500 for
      everything from lumber to wire cages. While that may seem high for
      someone trying to save on food costs, she plans on reusing the
      materials year after year. "We're even planning to save seeds for
      next year," she says.
      In the Garden Grove neighborhood of Portland, Ore., a community
      garden got a big makeover. Not only did the 15 participating
      households decide to double the garden's size and install a rain-
      sensitive sprinkler system; they also set aside a section so that
      each family gets its own subplot. "I'm in no way a tie-dye wearing
      granola hippie," says Garden Grove resident Dylan T. Boyd, a vice
      president at an email marketing company and father to two small
      boys. "But I was looking at the price of blueberries the other day --
      $5 for a fistful. I thought, 'Are you kidding me?' "
      While it's a time commitment, he says, the payback is far
      greater. "It's so much easier to walk to the top of the street and
      grab your lettuce and tomatoes for dinner, fresh every day."
      Talk to your local nursery or check the seed packet for instructions
      on ideal planting times, which vary depending on what part of the
      country you live in. Here are some other things to consider:
      Soil Testing
      If you live near an industrial plant or even in an old house where
      lead-based paint may have seeped into the soil, you should consider
      getting the soil checked for contaminants. A cooperative extension
      affiliated with a state university can usually do this. For the
      office near you go to www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/.
      If you build a separate or raised bed filled with compost and
      topsoil, you can forgo testing the soil you're worried about.
      You can also buy a soil-testing kit at a garden center which will
      tell you the pH and key nutrient levels. Optimum pH for growing
      vegetables is generally slightly acidic (between 6.5 and 7). If you
      don't have enough nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium you should add
      organic matter, such as good compost mixed in with your existing
      soil. Also consider organic fertilizers to boost those nutrients,
      such as blood meal, alfalfa meal, sea kelp or fish emulsion.
      Best Conditions
      Most vegetables do best when they get plenty of sun, so pick a spot
      that gets optimum sunlight, at least six to eight hours of direct
      sun daily. Leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach can tolerate
      shadier conditions. Also, those leafy vegetables typically want to
      be planted in the cooler part of the season, before average
      temperatures go much past 70 degrees. Vegetables that do best in the
      hotter months include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash. To
      conserve space, consider planting lettuce underneath tomato vines or
      even mixing them in other parts of the garden, where the foliage,
      vines and flowers can be captivating in their own right.
      "Sometimes people think they have to be in perfect rows, but there's
      no reason you can't put them in a little closer and mix them in with
      flower gardens," says Lori Bushway, a gardening outreach specialist
      at Cornell University. She adds that doing so is also a good foil
      for pests that tend to zero in more rapidly on plants that are
      massed together. When distributed around the landscape, "they're
      harder to find," she says.
      Think Before You Spray
      If you see a pest, find out what it is before reaching for that
      scary-sounding spray can. "People are buying sprays without even
      knowing what the problem is in the first place," says John
      Traunfeld, director of the home and garden information center at the
      University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural
      Resources. The local cooperative extension can help identify the
      problem and suggest the best remedy. "A lot can be taken care of by
      just hand picking," he says.
      Write to Anne Marie Chaker at anne-marie.chaker@...
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