VEGGIE TALES - HOME GARDENS GROW IN POPULARITY
J.C. Harper smiles proudly as she pulls out the sketch of her very first vegetable garden. There'll be yellow crook-necked squash here, tomatoes here, cucumbers there and over there, some green beans "because I'm told they're easy and I can't mess those up.
"I'd like to do watermelons on this last row, but that needs a lot of space, and I don't have a lot of space," she says. "So, I may do a few rows of cantaloupe."
Harper, a 30-year-old mother of two who's never gardened in her life, figures it'll be good experience for someone like her -- a self-described city girl who's been selling seed for Decatur's Agri-AFC (Alabama Farmers Cooperative) for the past four years.
She likely won't be alone. All across the nation, Americans young and old visited seed stores, garden centers and farm suppliers this spring in numbers not seen in almost four decades with plans to plant their own backyard gardens.
For some of these novice gardeners, it's just a longing for the "good ol' days" when grandma and grandpa grew their own; for others, it's because they want fresh, safe produce that they say tastes better than what they can get at the supermarket.
Still others -- those who count themselves among America's 13.5 million jobless (or fearful that they will soon join those ranks) -- are hoping a backyard garden will help them through tumultuous times like the "victory gardens" of yesteryear.
"When hard times come, people think they are going to go out and raise produce and livestock and eat poke salat, (but) it is a lot more difficult to do than they think," said Jim Langcuster of Alabama Cooperative Extension System's news and public affairs office, which has launched a campaign called "Thriving In Challenging Times" to help educate consumers on how to weather tough economic times.
However, at current prices, processed food is probably cheaper than homegrown.
"If you're relying on that garden for just fresh produce and you're going to go out and pick it and eat it that day or that week, you might save a little money. I would say, at the most, you would break even," said Kerry Smith, coordinator of the state's Master Gardener program and co-leader of the Home Grounds Team. "Now, if you get into the canning and preserving and freezing and all that and the expenses and time involved there, you really are not going to be saving money."
Regional Extension agent Shane Harris says the grocery or farmers markets may offer more savings for shoppers looking for fresh vegetables.
"If you don't have major investments up front, I think you can probably save more by buying fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market or at the store," said Harris. "But even with that, I don't think you'll make a huge dent in your grocery bill just because there's such a wide variety at low prices."
Harris said saving money is NOT the main concern for many of the gardeners he sees. "Many folks claim the homegrown fresh fruits and vegetables taste better," he said. "They take pride in the fact that they grew it, and know what kind of pesticides or products have been put on it."
Langcuster says it isn't just backyard gardens, either -- consumers are also calling county Extension offices about growing their own chickens or buying sides of beef.
Some gardeners are less concerned about cost savings than the availability of food should shortages arise due to global economics.
"Whether it's reality or not, it's the perceived reality," said ACES' Smith. "So, it's more than just the money. I think the entire political climate has brought up some thoughts -- and I hate to say it, but fears -- in people that they haven't considered in quite some time. All of these things, I feel, have mixed together to make them more interested in self-sustainability: How can I feed my family if I have to? If I have to rely only on me to feed my family, can I do it?'"
For more information on backyard gardening and a ACES publication dealing with the basics of managing through the current economic downturn, contact your county Extension office. The ACES Web site, www.aces.edu, also offers helpful advice in its "Thriving In Challenging Times" campaign as well as a list of upcoming "Home Grown" workshops at aces.edu/homegarden/HomeGrown.php.