The taste of fresh-picked peas and carrots are reason enough for Christy Barton to plant a vegetable garden this summer. But even more than that, the wife and mother of three -- ages 4, 2 and 5 months -- says growing food for her family will provide some security in an uncertain time. "Who knows if things will get better or worse?" said Barton, who lives in Clinton. "I want to be prepared."
The unstable economy has a driven a record number of homeowners in Utah -- and across the nation -- to purchase seed packets, visit nurseries and attend educational classes so they can plant a backyard garden. For many, it will be the first time they have ever dug into the soil for dinner.
In 2009, 43 million U.S. households plan to grow their own fruits, vegetables, berries, and herbs, according to a recent report from the National Gardening Association (NGA). That's up 19 percent -- from 36 million -- in 2008. Of those food gardening households, 21 percent will be new to gardening.
"As in previous recessions, we've seen increased participation and spending on food gardening as people look for ways to economize," said Bruce Butterfield, research director for the NGA.
Employees at Utah's Mountain Valley Seed Company don't need to see the national statistics to understand the phenomenon. Spring sales are double last year.
"It's the biggest home gardening year we've had in a long time," said Jerry Sawyer, operation manger for the Salt Lake City business that sells seeds to nurseries and other retail outlets. "We've been hammered. And we're trying to figure out how we are going to get through it."
Surprisingly, Sawyer said while home gardeners are gearing up for fruits, vegetables and herbs, they are cutting back slightly on decorative bedding plants, apparently considered a luxury in these hard times.
Burpee & Co., the country's largest seed retailer, reports that vegetable sales for January 2009 were up 20 percent from one year ago. Organic seed sales are up 46 percent from 2008.
A garden is worth the investment. Spending $50 for seeds and fertilizer now can produce more than $1,200 worth of food in a summer, according to Burpee officials.
People are taking their new hobby seriously, attending classes to help them be successful, said Claire Uno, director of Salt Lake City's Wasatch Community Gardens.
The nonprofit group has seen attendance surge for its gardening classes. More than 120 people showed up for a recent "organic gardening" workshop. With a 100-person limit, people were turned away, and so WCG has scheduled a second session for March 25.
A "raised bed" class was filled weeks in advance, prompting a second session. And a seed-starting course attracted 80 people, Uno said.
"Two-thirds of the people who came were new gardeners and had never been to one of our workshops before," she said. "We're used to classes with 20 or 30 people. So this is exciting for us."
Besides economic factors, Uno believes many people are taking up backyard gardening for safety reasons, after recent recalls of meat, spinach and peanut butter. "People are more interested in where they food comes from," she said. "They realize we have a big agricultural system that doesn't always operate in the consumer's best interest."
Environmental concerns are another reason for gardening's resurgence. In the United States, most food travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table, consuming millions of gallons of fuel and contributing to air and water pollution. Food that has been transported in a truck for several days or has been stored in a warehouse for months also loses flavor and nutritional value.
It's not just new gardeners who are getting educational help. That's the case with Shirlee Shelton. The Wendover resident has gardened for about five years, but recently attended a gardening discussion hoping to learn how to better utilize the 20-by-30-foot area in the back of her home.
The NGA reports that 11 percent of the households already active in food gardening planned to increase both the amount and the variety of vegetables in the garden in 2009.
"My kids live close and share my garden," Shelton said. "They can't afford the grocery store produce. And besides, it's not as good as homegrown."
58 percent -- To grow better tasting food
54 percent -- To save money on food bills
51 percent -- To grow better quality food
48 percent -- To grow food I know is safe
40 percent -- To feel more productive
35 percent -- To spend more time outdoors
25 percent -- To get back to basics
23 percent -- To have food to share with others
22 percent -- To live more locally
21 percent -- To have a family activity
30 percent -- To teach my kids about gardening
9 percent -- other
Source »"The Impact of Home and Community Gardening In America" report, conducted by The National Gardening Association
Red Butte Garden » 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City; 801-581-4747 or www.redbuttegarden.org
Thanksgiving Point » 3003 N. Thanksgiving Way, Lehi; 888.672.6040 or thanksgivingpoint.com
Utah State University Extension Services » Davis County, 28 E. State Street, Farmington; 801-451-3402; or http://extension.usu.edu/davis
» Salt Lake County, 2001 S. State Street, Salt Lake City; 801-468-3170; http://extension.usu.edu/saltlake
» Utah County, 100 E. Center St., Provo; 801-851-8460 or http://extension.usu.edu/utah
Wasatch Community Gardens » 345 E. 400 South, Suite 204, Salt Lake City; 801) 359-2658 or wasatchgardens.org
Here are four few things you can do in March:
» Have soil tested before planting new areas. Add amendments as necessary.
» Attend a vegetable gardening class.
» Vegetables that tolerant cold weather, such peas, radish, lettuce, and spinach can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked.
» Purchase seeds for warm weather crops, such tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Start them indoors under fluorescent lights for transplanting outdoors after the last frost, usually mid-May.
» Make sure watering or irrigation system is working properly.