In Tough Economic Times, More People in Southern Maryland Are Growing Their Own Gardens

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Since last summer, University of Maryland Cooperative Extension offices have been inundated with questions about starting backyard vegetable gardens. Because of the recession, gardening fruits and vegetables is making a comeback, especially for those no longer wanting to pay extra for organic food at high-end grocery stores.

"There's a real desire from people to eat locally, eat healthy and get their hands in the soil," said Jon Traunfeld, coordinator of the university's master gardeners program.

This week, the extension program is kicking off a "Grow It! Eat it!" initiative, which aims to help Marylanders save money and eat healthier by growing vegetables, fruits, berries and herbs. Program coordinators said they hope 1 million gardeners will be producing their food in two years.

Southern Maryland residents will have the opportunity to attend classes to learn how to start and keep a garden, and they can visit for step-by-step directions or to pose questions to gardening experts.

People growing fruits and vegetables to save money is not a new concept. During the Great Depression, suburban dwellers planted compact vegetable gardens in small back yards. During World War II, Victory Gardens became a way for people to feed their families while supporting the war effort.

Traunfeld said he saw small spikes in interest during the 1980s recession and again during the Y2K millennium scare, when some worried they might have to farm and hunt their own food. But, he said, those days were nothing compared with today.

"This is pretty dramatic," he said. "A lot of people have been asking if it's sustainable, if people will continue to do it when things get better."

On Friday, the first family broke ground for its vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House, with the help of elementary school students from Washington. The 1,100-square-foot organic garden will contain 55 kinds of vegetables, including peppers, spinach and arugula, in addition to berries, herbs and two beehives for honey.

But you don't have to live in the White House with an expansive green lawn and armed guards to create a garden, as Traunfeld's definition of "garden" is broad, including giant patches on sprawling acres, community gardens in the city and small window boxes full of herbs.

Inspired by small gardens during the Great Depression, Traunfeld invented the "salad table," a small wooden box outfitted with wire mesh and compost in which gardeners can grow lettuce, arugula, herbs, Asian greens and even green beans. Traunfeld will appear on "The Martha Stewart Show" this week to explain his salad table, which can fit on a patio, balcony or tiny back yard.

"You don't need a lot of room," he said. "What we are trying to do is break down the barriers, show people that it's not that difficult."

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