Creating Your Own Produce Section, Right Outside Your Door

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 4, 2008

More than a century ago, a plant breeder and seed merchant named W. Atlee Burpee bought Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pa., and developed varieties of vegetables for the home gardener. Today, the enterprise continues in the same soil under W. Atlee Burpee & Co.'s president, George Ball, who has seen the circle come full turn. Sort of.

The company's founder was selling seeds to people who relied on a domestic vegetable garden to provide much of their family's food. The world changed; successive generations grew less reliant on their own horticultural mettle and more on hopping into the car and driving to the supermarket.

But seed companies report a huge increase in sales this year as the once-fusty idea of a home veggie plot has come back into vogue.

Ball said his company's sales have jumped 37 percent, occasioned by what he calls the "perfect storm" of interest in the home garden. You know the story: Food prices have gone through the roof, and energy costs and its related effects are biting into personal incomes. Concerns about food safety and a desire to reduce one's carbon footprint have engendered interest in eating fresh food locally. And where does a locavore find the freshest, closest source of nutrition? In the back yard (or even the front one; more on that later).

To prove the point, this year Ball has tweaked his trial garden at Fordhook Farm and renamed it the Grocery Garden. He and his staff checked prices at local supermarkets in surrounding Bucks County and then applied those prices to the produce grown in raised beds totaling 4,000 square feet. Many of the beds are used for successive crops (the lettuce of spring might yield to the eggplant of summer, for example), but he estimates the value of the food harvested here from May to October to be about $20,000. The seed would cost $800, and if you add in the costs of tools, fertilizer, mulch and your own sweat equity, the figure climbs to about $4,000, he said.

You're still $16,000 ahead on your grocery bill, according to Ball's calculations.

That sum, however, doesn't account for the infrastructure of the garden: the board for retaining the growing beds, fencing, trellising, the drip irrigation system, the gravel for the paths, or indeed the soil. All this could be installed somewhat economically if you are handy and thrifty and willing to make your own soil by composting on a large scale over many months. Or you could spend a pretty penny buying designer soil and ready-made fences, etc.

However, there are further considerations, which I raise not to discourage this worthy enterprise, but to offer the complete picture.

The Grocery Garden has reached that merry state in which the soil is in good heart and the weeding is at an easy maintenance level. If you inherited an abandoned plot, as my brother did a few years ago, it might take two years or more to eradicate weeds and build the loam to perfection.

Another thing that strikes me about the Grocery Garden is its size. In Burpee's day, 4,000 square feet would have been nothing, but with today's intensive gardening techniques and more contained but productive varieties, such a space could feed a whole street, which is good, of course, but a lot of work.

Ball said a garden this size would take two people to maintain, and the assumption is that people who undertake such a large garden enjoy the process of gardening, not just its bounty. At this time of year, you'd have to be in the garden daily, if only to see what is ripening and ready for harvest.

Ball does offer a scaled-down concept, saying a family of four could raise a lot of produce in a simple bed measuring 6 by 12 feet, which could accommodate a series of vegetables in spring, summer and fall, including 24 broccoli plants, 84 root vegetables, 12 cabbages, 9 leeks, 66 salad greens, 48 pea vines, 9 bean plants, 3 cucumber vines, 3 pepper plants, 9 tomato plants and 3 squash vines.

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