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Recession Leads to More People Buying Seeds, Trying to Grow Vegetables

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This season, she said, the customers tended to be from their 20s to 40s and "many, many more males. It was much more driven by the economy."

Melera has also seen a strong demand for staple varieties, "what I would call survival food." These include seed potatoes, winter squash, peas, spinach, beets and pole beans, which produce more food per plant than bush beans. "Very few melons," she said.

The seed producers that supply wholesalers and retailers have been scrambling, along with their contract growers, to meet the demand.

John Wahlert, sales and production manager for Wild West Seed Inc. in Albany, Ore., said in a normal year he would have seed stockpiles in June to get a jump on the 2010 season or to make up for crop failures, but he and other producers are low on a range of basic varieties. "Onions are short, lettuces are short, carrots are extremely short," he said. "Beans are extremely short, peas are short."

Trevor Clarke, a seed producer in Hamilton City, Calif., said recessions tend to bump up consumer demand for vegetables at the expense of flower seeds, but this year he and fellow producers have seen the market for vegetable seeds expand by 30 to 35 percent. "This is the best year we have had in 20 years," said Clarke, of Western Hybrid Seeds Inc. "I have been in the vegetable-seed industry for 40 years, and this is the best year I have seen."

The question in everyone's mind is: Will this boom end when the economy picks up or when novice gardeners realize that raising vegetables requires some skill and a lot of commitment?

Melera said she's talked to beginners who thought you could grow vegetables indoors (you can't) and a customer who wanted to know how many plants he would get per seed (uh, one). She predicted as many as half the new gardeners will give up this summer. "I think we may have one more year, but I'll be surprised if by 2011 we will be seeing the same level of activity we are now," she said.

But Lou Zambello, director of sales and marketing for Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, said people have turned to growing vegetables for fundamental issues of health, food safety and saving money, "so hopefully this will have more staying power."

Frandano in Falls Church has become so canny and thrifty a gardener that he repots tomato seedlings that otherwise would be plucked to make room for others, and harvests seeds from store-bought peppers for garden plants. "I have beans ready to go" from those he saved from last year's crop, and he intends to allow some beans to ripen on the vine this season to sow for a fall crop. "We'll eat beans all year long," he said.

Diane Hund, director of marketing for the Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago, Ill., said two factors will insure a continued interest: "You're bitten by the bug, and second, you've got this big hole in your yard that you have got to fill with something."

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