Don and Judy Barrett have grown more zucchini, beans, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, spinach and tomatoes in four years than they know what to do with. What they haven't eaten fresh out of the ground, they have canned or frozen. What they haven't used, they're given away.
"We've hardly bought vegetables in years," says Don Barrett, a lieutenant commander in the Navy who lives with his wife in the Warwick Village section of Alexandria. "Our food costs are much lower than our neighbors'."
Like the Barretts, whose yearly garden costs average $39.19, hundreds of Washington area residents are suddenly catching on that home gardens, rental plots and even containers on the window sill make a relatively cheap, easy way to help deflect the burden of sharply rising food prices.
The result: the biggest gardening craze to sprout in the metropolitan area in years.
"People are calling us for information about growing things like never before," says Richard Biggs, a University of Maryland extension service agent in Montgomery County. "We get 150 calls a day, literally all we can handle. This phone will ring again eight seconds after you hang up."
In Alexandria's Chinquapin Park, gardeners like Thomas F. Johnson, 59, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, rent 400-square-foot plots for $15. Johnson is planting onions, spinach, peppers and lettuce this year.
But this year, for the first time, late comers will be disappointed. All 76 plots were rented by January. "That's how much interest there's been," says park director Marge Cooley, who has a waiting list of 40 people.
The local boom in grow-your own food supplies is reportedly part of a nationwide movement motivated by the chance to cut as much as $250 from the annual food bill of a family of four, according to government estimates.
Approximately 33 million American households -- 43 percent of all U.S. families -- now grow vegetables at home, authorities estimate, and that number is expected to grow. An additional 2 million people garden at community parks, like Johnson, and 7 million more would do so if the plots were available, according to a Gallup poll.
"We are in the middle of a significant change in the way people deal with food," says Rep. Frederick W. Richmond (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
"We are returning to local agriculture, grown in the backyard, because of the rapid increase in energy prices. I see it around the country, as well as in my district in Brooklyn."
The sale of seed packets alone has risen more than 20 percent to $53 million in the last year, according to national industry figures.
One Alexandria dealer, Howard L. Gaines of Gaines Hardware, says he tripled his Burpee seed order this year to meet expected demand.
"We've had a tremendous run on all items relating to vegetable gardening," agrees John Hechinger, president of the 26-store Hechinger chain. "Things like tomato stakes, wire lattice work for beans, insecticides and both chemical and organic fertilizers have moved very quickly this year."
Annual Gallup polls commissioned by a nonprofit gardening organization showed that interest in vegetable gardening dropped off in the late 1970s after a mid-decade peak. Improvement in the economy and the frustrations of first-time gardeners were blamed for the decline.
But a Gallup poll last year indicated that more than one-third of all Americans who gardened were once again doing so for economic reasons.
Contributing to the rise in home gardening is a four-year-old U.S. Dpartment of Agriculture program designed to encourage mainly poor, inner city residents to till the soil, even in small containers.
"People want to grow things to save money and eat better," says Al Smith, an agricultural agent in the District. "Almost anything you can grow on land you can grow in a container."
Besides economics, however, thee is a sense of personal satisfaction that many say has also helped draw city dwellers into the garden patch.
"There's nothing like the companionship of gardeners," says Johnson, the economist, as he digs his shovel into the earth "or the taste of fresh-picked vegetables."