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The Economy's Other Green Shoots: A Gardening Boom

Friday, 1 May 2009 | 2:00 PM ET

Green shoots aren't just popping up in the economy. In case you haven't noticed, we're in the midst of a gardening boom.

From national home improvement chains such as Home Depotto local garden centers, stores are buzzing with folks getting into gardening for the first time. Even First Lady Michelle Obama is digging in the dirt on the South Lawn, planting the White House's first vegetable garden since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt.

The National Gardening Associationpredicts the number of people planting vegetable gardens is expected to rise almost 20 percent this year. Some say it's likely to surge even higher.

More consumers are planting, and they are planting more than they usually have, says Keri Butler, a spokeswomen at Scotts Miracle-Gro.

Butler says there's been a surge in consumers ringing up the company's call center, and most people want tips on planting vegetables.

At Ace Hardware stores in the Denver metro area, sales of seeds are up more than 300 percent, says Andy Carlson, a store owner and a member of a regional dealer group for the hardware chain.

Customers are mainly shopping for vegetable seeds and herbs instead of flowers, he says.

"We had anticipated that we would have a good season because the weather was very mild," he says. "We knew people would be excited to get out there, so we were well-stocked and in-stock early, but we have seen the need to replenish several times, which is highly unusual."

Many shoppers are buying gardening supplies for the first time. Carlson has given his sales staff additional training in order to field questions from novices.

"I think you have got to speculate the economy has something to do with it," Carlson says.

Estimates suggest gardeners can harvest about $600 worth of produce for an investment of about $70 in seeds and fertilizer.

Beetberry and Lamb Quarters

But it goes beyond the economy, according to home-style expert Katie Brown. Brown thinks there's a "perfect storm" of factors behind the trend, and saving money is just one factor. Others include an increased interest in eating "local," a desire to eat healthier, and an interest in knowing where food comes from, she says.

garden vegetables
garden vegetables

"You can take it and serve it up with no middle man," she says. "There is something very satisfying about that. Especially at a time when people feel that there is not that much control over what is going on in [their] lives."

That may explain why there's also an increased demand for a wider array of vegetables. Jill LaVigne, a buyer for the Great Outdoors Nursery in Austin, Texas, says he's even having trouble keeping formerly less popular vegetables like sweet potatoes in stock.

"It's anything and everything edible," LaVigne says. "If you can eat it, people want to buy it."

She's even getting customer requests for little-known vegetables such as beetberry and lamb quarters.

Both requests are a little odd. Beetberrylooks pretty in a salad because it has bright red berries, but neither the berries nor the leaves have much taste. Lamb quartersgrow like weeds naturally in the Austin area.

"If they go home and look around their yard, they'll probably find it," LaVigne says. She actually cooked up some that she found growing wild in her backyard.

"It was tasty," she admits. "But I guess anything is if you sautee it with butter and garlic."

But tomatoes remain a favorite, according to Jessie Atchison, a spokeswoman from Burpee Home Gardens.

Burpee and other seed companies are mindful of the need to help more inexperienced gardeners be successful with their plants in order to keep sales growing into next year. One way Burpee is doing that is through garden kits that combine plants needed to grow specific foods.

The companyhas a test market in Texas for a salsa kit that has been very successful so far. The kit helps gardeners grow all the ingredients needed to make salsa at home. The idea for the product sprang from last year's salmonella scare, which hurt the nation's tomato crop.

Want to Splurge?

Other companies are also trying to address other obstacles to gardening.

Backyard Leisure, a company most know for its cedar swing-sets, is tackling the space issue. It recently began selling Backyard Botanical gardening systems at 300 of Wal-Mart's Sam's Club warehouse stores. Despite a hefty price tag of nearly $900 for each 8-foot by 8-foot Oasis gardening system, the product has been a surprisingly quick seller. In about six weeks, the company has sold 1,200 units.

Made from bug-resistant cedar, the gardening beds allow gardeners to plant a large number of plants in a compact space. As an added advantage, it is raised up from the ground, making it easier to dig and weed, and it comes with an automatic irrigation system that knows when to water the plants.

Backyard Botanical Oasis
Backyard Botanical Oasis
Backyard Botanical Oasis

"A lot of people don't have a lot of space for a garden," says Tom Prichard, Backyard Leisure's president. He estimates that gardeners can plant just as much in the Oasis as they could in a conventional 30-foot by 40-foot row garden.

Prichard got the idea for the gardening system from Lisa Singer, a lawyer turned gardening expert, who was custom-building similar systems at a cost of between $2,000 and $3,000 each. (Watch Singer's own garden grow and get tips at her blog.)

With Backyard Leisure well on its way to reaching its sales goals for the Oasis gardening system, the company is setting its sights on other versions that are smaller or modular, which would be better for gardeners with more limited space.

OnAmazon.com, products that promise to make gardening easier are selling well.

"We are seeing trends toward easy-to-use, environmentally friendly products," said Matt Dean, director of Tools and Home Improvement at Amazon.com. Some of the popular products include aerator shoes, weeders, pruners, folding shovels and garden tools for kids.

And when it's time to harvest, you may want to look into canning. Apparently, more people are looking at that as well. Sales of home canning supplies are up 30 percent in 2008, according to a spookeswoman for Ball, a unit of Jarden. This trend has continued for the first three months of this year, and may keep going in the months ahead as Ball is seeing more traffic to its website.

More from Consumer Nation:

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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