By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008
NEW YORK -- Just beneath an L train subway platform in Brooklyn, Tanika Gentry fingers the deep green leaves of a collard plant in the black soil of a community garden.
This is dinner.
Gentry, fed up with the spiking cost of food, recently decided to grow her own. Now she is reaping a harvest of collards, cabbages, tomatoes and pumpkins to feed her family.
"Once you have to choose between eating and fuel, there's nothing greater than going back to the beginning and making your own," said Gentry, 32, who home-schools her two daughters. "With the way things are going, it may be something a lot more people are realistically doing."
From Atlanta to Minneapolis to Seattle, people are reacting to the stagnant economy and the high cost of produce by planting their own fruits and vegetables, say garden store owners, bulk seed sellers and industry analysts.
In the skyscrapered canyons of New York City, increasing numbers of people are growing their food on fire escapes, on rooftops, in back yards and in community gardens.
It is a phenomenon that has always ebbed and flowed with the economy, said Bruce Butterfield, the market research director of the National Gardening Association, who has been tracking it for decades. The biggest recent peak in homegrown food came in 1975, during a national oil crisis, he said, when 49 percent of U.S. households were growing vegetables.
There were Liberty Gardens to help during World War I, and World War II inspired Victory Gardens, which produced an estimated 40 percent of all vegetables consumed in the country in 1943. The Great Depression spawned Relief Gardens in the 1930s, and in 1974 President Gerald R. Ford encouraged Whip Inflation Now, or WIN, Gardens.
Last year, Butterfield said, about 22 percent of U.S. households -- including many in cities and suburbs -- grew vegetables, spending an average of $58 to do so, up from $48 per household in 2006. Butterfield anticipates that number will be significantly higher this year.
The reasons vary but include increasing interest in the quality and environmental impact of food. Recently, money has become a bigger factor.
In New York City, more than 3 million residents, 38 percent of the population, had difficulty affording food last year, according to a recent report by the Food Bank for New York City -- up 13 percentage points from 2003. Food costs rose 15 percent during that period. The number of people using soup kitchens and food pantries hit 1.3 million last year, up 24 percent from 2004.
At the Secret Garden in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where Gentry tends her vegetables, much of the 29,000 square feet of growing space on two levels has been sown by new gardeners concerned about food prices, she said.
In the East New York section of Brooklyn, Marsha King, 29, a management consultant for churches, began to plant seeds for food a few months ago.
"I watched the prices go up when I went to the supermarket. I'd say: Wow! This is $3?" she said. "You put a little seed in, and it comes to maturity like a child. I take pictures, and e-mail them around to my friends. They say, 'You're kidding! You did what?' "
Deborah Greig, the urban agriculture coordinator for East New York Farms, said, "I have a 30-person waiting list for a new garden."
In the past few months, the plant hotline at the Queens Botanical Garden, which is known for its flowers, has been fielding questions from inexperienced gardeners planting vegetables, said Tim Heimerle, director of development.
At the Chelsea Garden Center, which has stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan, "there's been more interest than ever in culinary herbs," said David Protell, the owner. "We've carried more tomatoes, more lettuce, than ever before."
The city is taking steps to support urban food production. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development last year helped farmers gain access to two half-acre parcels of city land to grow food.
And the winning entry in the city's first juried design competition for affordable and sustainable housing in the Bronx includes roof gardens for vegetables and fruit.
Scott Stringer, president of the Manhattan borough, is even proposing a high-rise farm with food growing on each floor.
Nationally, people are growing more vegetables and fruits than flowers for the first time in at least a decade, said Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening magazine.
"This year, it's really exploded," he said. "It's not only the high cost of food, but the high cost of every other activity. People are staying around their homes and looking to do things they find rewarding."
George Ball, chairman of W. Atlee Burpee, the country's largest seed company, said he has seen a 30 to 40 percent increase in vegetable seed sales this year.
"I think the thing that tipped the scale was the fuel and food costs," he said. "This is a big deal for middle-class people." He estimates that every dollar invested in seeds can become $20 worth of produce.
A national survey of nurseries found that vegetables and their seeds "flew off the shelves," this year, said Robert LaGasse, executive director of the Garden Writers Association.
In Minneapolis, Karen O'Connor, who co-owns the Mother Earth Gardens, said she cannot keep pace with the demand. "We ordered three times as many fruit trees as ever before," she said. "We sold out of all the vegetables in June -- seeds, too."
In Seattle, Marguerite Lynch, an interior designer, put up a sign on a 10-by-40-foot strip on her driveway saying, "We're sick of rising fuel and food prices so we're turning this weed patch into a vegetable garden. Want to help?"
A week later, she had five volunteers. She ordered organic vegetable compost, delivered in two giant dump trucks, and soon had a bed in which to plant beets, basil, Swiss chard, bush beans, peas, acorn squash, pumpkin and kale.
In Atlanta, Robin Marcus, who co-owns the Urban Gardener store, essentially created a home farm when she bought a city house with 3 1/2 -acre yard -- now full of tomatoes and okra and green beans. "We're doing eight quarts of spaghetti sauce from the yard right now, we've got so many tomatoes," she said.
Beneath the L train platform, Gentry and her daughters, Natasha, 10, and Queene, 6, can stop by the vegetable plot to pick some greens as they walk to the grocery store to buy salad dressing.
"I never thought they'd be able to run through a field of corn and sunflowers in New York City," Gentry said.