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Home grown: Backyard vegetable gardens are booming

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A red wagon sits in a path waiting to haul fertilizer or a child at a community garden where local gardeners are preparing to plant this year's crop. People wait for spots to open at the West Side Community Garden in New York, as a record number of Americans plant edible gardens this year. (Photo/Holly Fletcher)

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Bags of fertilizer sit near raised beds as part of spring preparations at West Side Community Garden at West 89th Street in Manhattan, New York, where people are beginning to plant vegetables for a summer harvest. There are limited spots available in the community garden and people wait for a spot to open up. (Photo/Holly Fletcher)

This summer blue potatoes, zucchini and string beans will be planted in neat rows in a small patch of dirt behind a student house in Waterloo, Canada, about 70 miles west of Toronto. The 8-by-8-foot plot will be tended by Sylvia Chapman, a fourth-year environmental studies major who plans to make stew and lasagna from the bounty of her first solo venture into the world of backyard gardening.

Chapman, who grew up just east of Waterloo and helped her family tend a sizable garden that boasted carrots, eggplants and strawberries, will be scaling down the scope of her veggie patch to a size that’s manageable for just one person—and maybe some help from her friends.

“I want to build that sense of accomplishment,” Chapman said. “I don’t want things to wilt or die since it’s my first time,” she added, noting that she “rescued” a potato that was beginning to sprout from her roommates’ compost to use as a seedling.

First-time gardeners like Chapman will be tending the soil in record numbers this year. More than 43 million people will pick up shovels and trowels this spring to try their hand at producing at least some of their own food, a 20 percent increase over 2008, according to the National Gardening Association.

The recent fanfare associated with the new White House garden—the first First Veggie Patch in more than 60 years—highlights the green mood that is taking root across the country. Not since President Franklin Roosevelt’s Victory Garden campaign, which encouraged civilians to support the war effort by growing their own food during World War II, have so many families shown interest in backyard produce.

But the latest surge in gardening is not just about supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also fueled by concerns about global warming, healthy eating and, of course, a severe economic downturn that has driven many people to think about ways to get more bang for their grocery buck.

“It’s a mix of the economy and a mix of environmental concerns and, I think, of wanting to return to where we came from—to tradition,” said Judy Elliott, an education coordinator with Denver Urban Gardens, a nonprofit that helps create and manage more than 80 community gardens and parks in Colorado.

Denver Urban Gardens normally receives enough annual support to plant four new community gardens in and around Denver, but this year interest is so strong that the group will establish 12 gardens at places ranging from a public school and a homeless shelter to a senior citizen home and an inner-city neighborhood. Likewise, on the other side of the country the Cornell University Cooperative Extension in Ithaca, N.Y., holds several Saturday workshops during the month of April to help new gardeners break ground. This year all 140 slots in the course are filled.

During World War I and especially World War II, many Americans were willing to spend time each week gardening out of patriotism and solidarity with the troops. The government launched a nationwide campaign in the 1940s, much like the well-known “Uncle Sam Wants You” military recruiting posters, to remind citizens that gardening was an all-American way to contribute to the war effort. Household victory gardens reduced everyday demand for food at a time when the supply was strained by the needs of soldiers fighting overseas in Europe and the Pacific. Gardening was a way to win the war from the home front.

More than 60 years later, the Victory Garden concept is making a comeback thanks in part to Gretchen Mead, a part-time social worker in Milwaukee, mother of three, and serious gardener. This winter Mead started the Victory Garden Initiative to encourage people to grow their own food—just as she does in her front yard. Mead is in the midst of coordinating a Memorial Day “Garden Blitz,” where volunteers will install as many gardens around the area as they can over the weekend.

She said that her effort was “a culmination of being completely disenchanted with the way things were and with Obama coming into office,” adding that the beauty of gardening “is that it draws people in on so many different levels. Some want to save money, others do it for environmental reasons, others are afraid of contaminants.”

Victory garden lore also inspired Catrina Kleven, 22, of Fort Wayne, Ind., to turn to gardening as a way to cut back on buying imported produce while stretching her tight budget. Kleven, who grew up listening to her grandmother’s World War II garden tales, is preparing to plant a large garden of her own so she can preserve food —corn, tomatoes, beans—for the winter and open a stall at the local farmer’s market. “People are so financially strapped I think they are just looking for solutions” and trying to get back to the basics, said Kleven, who is trying organize a local Victory Garden club to share gardening tips.

Getting advice is something many experts recommend to first-time gardeners to avoid common and potentially costly mistakes. “A garden, like a child, needs to be cared for and maintained on a regular basis,” said Judy Elliott of Denver Urban Gardens. “It’s more than just planting it.” She suggested reserving at least a couple of hours a week to water, weed and check for pests.

Starting small is the key to success as an amateur, according to Lori Bushway, who teaches gardening at Cornell University, because people get “overwhelmed by stuff” in catalogs and books. Gardening doesn’t need to be tough, Bushway explained, as long as first-timers are realistic about what they can produce. Lettuce, beans and cucumbers are hardy plants and will probably yield good results with just a few hours of maintenance.

Dave Goldenberg, 55, the founder of the Dave and Eddy Show, a marketing and advertising firm in Ridgefield, Conn., and a “complete gardening newbie,” will be shoveling dirt for the first time in 35 years. He managed to harvest one tomato from a pot on his deck two years ago that he dubbed his $65 tomato for all the money he spent on supplies. Last year, he did even worse, producing no tomatoes. Nevertheless, this spring he is attempting a full-scale garden and relying on the expertise of his daughter Jamie, 25, a professional gardener in western Massachusetts, plus “lots of inconsistent advice” online.

Raised beds will host what Goldenberg hopes will be a summer-long bounty that will produce enough tomatoes, carrots, lettuce and melons for him and his wife to enjoy—and share with friends. Though he doesn’t expect abounding success, given his previous record, this year is different, he said, because the garden is a way to feel like he’s got some control in his life during a time of economic volatility.

“I’m not going into this with illusions,” he declared “I’m going to get dirty; I’m going to get wet,” he said, adding that maybe he can convince his wife to help weed. “But it can’t be that hard.”

E-mail: hf2198@columbia.edu