Backyard vegetable gardens popular in tough times

Bradenton Herald — Janet Spencer doesn’t have to hunt from store to store for decent, affordable vegetables.

They grow right under her nose. In her backyard.

“I have a little of this and a little of that,” said the 81-year-old Bradenton resident.

Her 15-year-old garden has everything from spinach and celery to turnips and potatoes.

Spencer, who has been an avid gardener since she was 10, said growing veggies helps save a few dollars — as long as it’s done right.

It’s an activity that residents are turning to for recreation and savings in a rough economy.

If the harvest is bountiful, food can be frozen and canned for later use, which would save on costs in the long run, said Spencer, who has been a master gardener since 1986.

“It’s different when you save a lot,” she said.

Lisa Hickey, master gardener program coordinator for the Manatee County Extension office, said backyard vegetable gardening has been on the rise in Manatee for two years.

“It’s a huge trend,” she said. “I’ve been getting a lot more questions from first-time gardeners.”

Nationwide, 43 million households plan to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs or berries this year. That’s a 19 percent jump from last year, according to the National Gardening Association.

Garden-related sales have also been blooming across the country. In 2008, $2.5 billion was spent on seeds, plants, fertilizers and gardening supplies, the NGA reported.

The association said an average, well-maintained garden can yield a savings of $500 a year.

Hickey believes part of the popularity behind backyard gardening is the economic benefits during the recession. But there’s also some recreational and health perks, too.

“Nobody likes anything better than what’s grown out of their own garden,” Hickey said.

But in Florida, growing a backyard full of fresh veggies at home isn’t easy. Unlike gardening up north, the Sunshine State has its challenges.

“There’s humidity,” said Hickey. “A lot more pests — the pests are in larger quantities. And there’s sandy soil that’s low in nutrients.”

More often than not, she encounters first-time Florida gardeners who aren’t as successful with their veggies here than they were up north.

When everything dies, the culprit may lie in the soil.

“A lot of times they don’t test the soil first,” Hickey said.

Gardening Florida style

Hickey said the key to gardening is to plan ahead. Test the soil to see if it has the right pH balance, then figure out the seasons to grow certain food in.

Before planting seeds, gardeners have to know what type of soil they are dealing with, experts say. The extension office conducts soil pH tests at homes for a $3 fee, said Hickey.

There are two growing seasons in Florida: spring and fall. Plants such as tomatoes and turnips are best grown in central Florida January-March and September. Sweet potatoes are grown February-June, collards August-March and broccoli August -January.

Gardeners use fertilizers and sometimes pesticides, which help kill bugs.

Barbara Davis, though, is used to fresh food free of chemicals. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Davis grows a variety of veggies in her East Manatee yard. The nine-year-old garden includes corn, green beans, onions, collards and broccoli.

Since Davis’ garden is small, she doesn’t see the need to spray it.

“Ninety-nine percent of all bugs are good bugs,” she said. “I have a lot of good bugs at work. I hand-pick them off.”

Spencer, on the other hand, lets the bugs have their share sometimes.

“If the bugs need it, I let them have it,” she said.

Growing to save

Manatee extension agent Peggy Dessaint said backyard farming is a good way for people to save in tough economic times.

“Things here have gotten so tight for some families,” she said. “It’s a way to save several hundred dollars.”

The savings can be found in storing what is grown.

Davis likes to can her food, especially the green beans, which she shares with her son and his family. She also freezes them. It saves her anywhere from 50 cents to a $1 each for store-bought canned beans.

“I don’t have to buy any more until next season,” she said.

Davis said she typically saves leftover seeds from year to year too for savings in gardening cost. In all, she puts about $20-$25 a year into her garden. Spencer puts in $15-$20 annually.

“Considering what you get back, it’s worth it,” Davis said.

Nationwide, households spent an average of $53 a year on vegetable gardening, according to the NGA.

Spencer said families looking to save through food gardening will do well with tomatoes and pole beans, which can grow in abundance.

There’s also another home-grown option — the Earth Box.

The garden box, which grows veggies without the maintenance of a garden, is a special plastic container that holds a reservoir of water. Just add planting soil, seeds and water. The box grows everything from bell peppers to okra. One box has been known to yield 50 pounds of tomatoes, said Blake Whisenant, a commercial tomato farmer who invented the contraption.

“It’s the best way to grow a garden,” he said.

Whisenant has a store called the Earth Box in Ellenton. The boxes, which range from $33.95 to $45.00, are sold nationwide, he said. They even have their own fan page on Facebook.

Though the box is expensive, the results seem foolproof.

“I think they’re very nice,” said Spencer, who has used a few of the boxes over the years. “Once you get one, it’s cheaper the second time around.”

Posted April 12, 2009

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