A Boomer in Gardening
A Tale of Age, Spare Time and Tomato Vines

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006


George Ball Jr. slumps in his club chair and mimics the one vegetable you won't find grown here at Fordhook Farm: the couch potato.

"I think gardening is like the antithesis to this terrible trend of people just looking at the television," said Ball, president of the nation's largest retail seed company, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. "When you hit 40 your body changes, and if you let it sit there it's going to turn into jello."

Ball believes a lot of his fellow baby boomers know that, too, and he's counting on them to continue growing his business while enriching their lives. Vegetable gardening and seed starting have been declared a waning hobby in the United States -- a recent national study shows a marked dip in participation in the pastime earlier this decade. But Ball begs to differ. He says his figures show a healthy 5 to 10 percent growth in unit and dollar sales annually, and he sees even better years ahead.

The reasons are neither hidden nor unexpected, but momentous nevertheless. Baby boomers began to reach age 60 this year, and the stars are aligned for a renaissance in vegetable gardening. The activity, Ball points out, needs people with two commodities: time and a permanent site. Older boomers are retiring or semi-retiring, giving them the time, and have reached the point in their lives where they tend to stay put.

And there is a third element at play -- less tangible, more profound. Gardening, which is as much about tending the soul as the soil, is something people come to later in life, Ball says. "To me, it's as natural as rain that more people would turn to gardening, and that's been reflected in my sales."

A recent survey by the South Burlington, Vt.-based National Gardening Association tracks a decline in vegetable gardening from 2000 to 2004, but a surge last year. The number of households involved in vegetable gardening jumped from 24 million to 27 million in 2005, according to the study. The survey included an estimated 6 million householders between the ages of 35 and 44, another 6 million between 45 and 54, and 10 million over 55.

Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening, said the magazine commissioned a poll this year that showed a surprising leap in the number of younger women interested in organic gardening, with 69 percent of them focused on vegetable gardening. He thinks this is being driven by women in their 30s who are turning to home crafts and hobbies that their parents rejected as old-fashioned, including knitting, cooking and gardening.

Meyer says boomers remain the main sector, but "it just surprised us and felt significant that this younger demographic has a strong enthusiasm for gardening." He concedes the poll was of people predisposed to gardening.

Ball is not betting the vegetable farm on thirty-somethings, however. "Do you find young women wanting to go into the nursery to find plants? Yes. But you take a working woman in her 30s, and no way" would she devote her spare time to inherently high-maintenance vegetable gardening.

Ball is talking in the study of the 18th-century farmhouse that was purchased by W. Atlee Burpee in 1888, and he seems to offer a few glances to the corner where Burpee would work at his desk. Ball, himself the scion of a well-known seed business, Ball Horticultural Co., became head of the Burpee company in 1991 and purchased Fordhook Farm from Burpee heirs in 1999. Burpee's corporate headquarters, where seeds are packed and dispatched, is 10 miles away in Warminster.

The 60-acre Fordhook Farm, in Bucks County, might be to vegetable gardening what Yankee Stadium is to the national pastime: a place where legends are made. This soil gave birth to such iconic hybrids as iceberg lettuce, the bush lima bean and the Big Boy tomato. More than a century after Burpee moved his company here and helped to turn America into a land of home gardeners, the search for better tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash, to name but a few subjects of study, continues, but with a renewed sense of urgency given the boomer demographics.

With hybridizer Grace Romero and others, including horticulturist Tracy Lee, Ball has been putting back display and trial gardens similar to Burpee's. In the main trial garden, called the Market Garden, the company evaluates its own hybrids and those from independent breeders from around the country. It sells annuals, herbs, bulbs and perennial seeds and plants as well as vegetable varieties.

Ball is fascinated by Burpee's formative years. As a teenager in Philadelphia, the young Burpee bred poultry as a hobby. Selective breeding was the high-tech genetics of its day, and he extended his breeding techniques to sheepdogs and livestock as well as hens, and eventually to plants.

When he established the seed catalogue, he would travel to Europe, starting in southern Italy and working his way northward to growers and hybridizers, securing seed stock and putting together his catalogue on the voyage home.

At first, Burpee was looking for European varieties that could grow in the United States, but it soon dawned on him that the future lay in breeding new hybrids here, better adapted to the vagaries of American soils, climates and pests.

More than a century later, the ambition at Fordhook to breed better vegetables remains eerily unchanged, though it is steered by considerations Burpee might only have imagined.

The interest in heirloom varieties such as the big, fluted Brandywine tomato has spurred an interest in developing varieties that have the character and flavor of antique varieties but with modern traits, especially a higher yield over a longer period and, often, a better disease resistance.

During a tour of the main trial garden, Lee points out a grape tomato variety named Napa. Breeders have been scrambling to produce a small grape tomato to match a sweet, petite variety named Santa that became widely available, and popular, in supermarkets about 12 years ago. This is an amusing twist on the home-grown ideal -- invariably, supermarket varieties are considered inferior to those raised in the garden. But Santa is sweet enough to sell as a snack food and yet is unavailable in seed catalogues. Napa, Lee says, has been tested even sweeter and stays desirably smaller. It will be available in January for next season.

She stops along one of the long, sun-beaten rows of tomato plants to point out Golden Roma, a plum type that can be made into a bright orange spaghetti sauce. It, too, should be in next year's catalogue, though Ball says probably with a jazzier name. "That could be a sensational thing." He dreams of developing a tomato that is fully white and one that is a large, beefsteak black.

Lee, in the trial garden, points out a cucumber named Tanya, bred to avoid the common cucumber sins of bearing prolifically and then shriveling. The fruits stay small, the yield is over a long period, and the seed cavity remains small. It will probably be introduced as Burpless Beauty.

Then there are the peppers, which have undergone their own revolution in recent years as foodies and gardeners have discovered novel types of chili and sweet peppers as well as ornamental ones. Lee is coaxing a striped hot pepper into something even brighter, and with variegated leaves. The idea is to produce a decorative pepper that is also good to eat.

Much of the work reflects an embrace of ethnic foods barely considered in Burpee's day, from Thai basils to Japanese soybeans to the now ubiquitous cilantro. Cilantro seeds constitute Burpee's fourth-best-selling herb, Ball said. "Who would have guessed it?" he said. "But that's salsa."

Lee is testing varieties of Jamaican greens for flavor and performance. When it comes to veggies, she says, "there's always room for improvement."

And self-improvement.

Ball waxes lyrically on the benefits of gardening, especially to a boomer generation craving health, exercise and better nutrition.

"When you become a gardener, your body changes, your diet changes," he said. "When I'm at the end of the day gardening, the air is mine, the water is mine, the sun is mine." And now, the baby boomers are his.

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