Sales Down? Not In The Gardening Aisle

by Sarah Mahoney

While it's certainly no news that consumers are doing more to keep their food costs low, even insiders are a little taken aback at the enthusiasm of America's avid new vegetable gardeners.

At Burpee, sales of seed starter kits -- a must-have for gardening newbies -- are up, and the company says that while they are keeping up with demand for most seeds, they may be running low on onions. And sales of organic seed packets --which are most likely to appeal to more affluent and educated gardeners -- are up an astonishing 46% over last year, a spokesperson says. At the Home Depot, sales of seed packets through January are up "in the high double digits," a spokesperson says.

A new survey from the National Gardening Association found a 19% increase in the number of Americans who plan to plant a garden this year -- and 21% of them will be brand new to gardening. Last year, 31% -- or an estimated 36 million households -- had a garden, and 10% of them say they plan to devote more time to it this year.

While the recession is clearly the main driver -- with 62% of gardeners saying the recession is motivating them -- there are other factors at work. About 58% say they just want better-tasting food, 54% want to lower food bills, 51% want better-quality food, and 48% want to know that their produce is safe.

From a financial point of view, it's a much safer bet than, let's say, a 401(k): The NGA says a well-maintained food garden yields about 1/2 pound of produce per square foot of garden area over the course of the growing season, worth about $2 per pound. That means the average-size garden -- 600 square feet -- can produce 300 pounds of produce worth $600. Minus the $70 most people spend on their garden each year, consumers can typically net $530 in food savings.

Tomatoes are by far the most beloved crop -- grown by 86% of food gardeners, says the NGA. (The Burpee spokeswoman says its new sweet, seedless variety, featured on the front of its catalog, is performing beyond expectations.) Cukes come in second at 47%, followed by sweet peppers (46%), beans (39%), carrots (34%), summer squash (32%), onions (32%), hot peppers (31%), lettuce (28%), and peas (24%.).

Another change -- albeit on a small scale -- is the growing interest in community and school gardens, indicating that consumers expect gardens to provide them with more than just "biggest tomatoes" or "most zucchini" bragging rights in the cul-de-sac.

While the vast majority -- 91% -- garden in their own backyards, the number who use community gardens or at a friend's or neighbor's is growing. And among those who don't garden, 7% say they would be interested in having a plot in a community garden located near their home. That means an estimated 5 million gardeners, on top of the 1 million who already participate in such a program, would like to get their hands dirty in a way that also benefits the community.

ScottsMiracle-Gro is building on that civic-minded spirit. The Marysville, Ohio-based lawn care giant recently kicked off a massive GroGood Campaign by donating one million pounds of produce to local food groups. (The campaign is a joint effort with Plant a Row for the Hungry, started 14 years ago by a group of gardening writers, and Feeding America, a hunger relief charity.)

"This program is designed to make it easy for backyard gardeners to get involved and make a difference," the company says in its release about the program -- and it challenges Americans to come up with another 1 million pounds. "One million pounds may sound like a lot, but if just 40,000 people take the GroGood pledge and donate one full reusable grocery bag -- roughly the equivalent of 25 pounds of produce -- we'd hit our goal and help feed approximately 1.4 million Americans."

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