Organic-Food Desire, Soaring Grocery Bills Contributing to Trend
Keely Sinclair was worried about the politics of food - how far it travels, how safe it is, how pesticides affect the environment.
On top of that, the 38-year-old office manager realized one day that she was spending an awful lot of money on organic produce.
Driven by growing food costs, concerns about global food shortages, and a new environmental consciousness, Sinclair and more consumers like her are beginning to nurture produce on their own plots of land.
"It is amazing how many people are coming in and saying this is the first garden that they've ever done," said Jane Brown, store manager for Native Seeds/SEARCH. "They're saying that they want fresher food and locally grown food and that they're trying to take the edge off the grocery bill."
Determined, Sinclair did research, consulted with other home gardeners here and got to work on her backyard garden.
Over the past year, she's successfully grown kale, chard, spinach,
broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, squash, tomatoes and herbs. She
accidentally planted carrots too close together but found the stunted
roots quite tasty, if small.
All she's been buying when her garden is in full bloom are onions from farmer's markets. "I am absolutely saving money," she said, estimating she's shaved expenses by $20 a week.
Aside from that, though, it's rewarding and convenient and far easier than she imagined. "I go out and cut herbs and kale and put it all in a pan and cook it. It feels good to know I'm eating something that I've nurtured and grown from the ground up," Sinclair said.
Cathy Bishop, co-owner of Mesquite Valley Growers Nursery, estimated she's seen a 30 percent increase in interest in food crops. She's also seeing a jump in soil sales for raised-bed gardens and in what she calls the how-do-I-do-it questions.
"We're seeing tons of first-time gardeners putting in beds and we keep hearing the same things over and over," Bishop said. "One is the sudden consciousness people have about how far their food is being trucked, especially given the cost of oil and the fact it's getting more expensive.
"Number Two, when we had the scare last winter about the bacteria in spinach that was sickening people, we could not grow spinach fast enough to keep up with the demand. People are concerned about the health implications."
Bishop said there have not been as many compelling reasons for growing your own food since the era of the "victory garden" during the world wars, in which homeowners helped the war effort by growing their own food on small plots to reduce the pressure on food supplies.
Most people, she said, have some little corner that they can grow in, especially since vegetable gardens take up so little space.
Tucson appears to be mirroring a national trend.
In its early spring report, the Garden Writers Association asked how its members planned to spend their gardening dollars. Vegetables came in second place, behind lawns and grass. It's the first time since 2005 that vegetables bumped annuals and perennials and ranked that high.
Eric Clark, horticulturalist at Civano Nursery here, said vegetable sales are up about 20 percent. Instead of lawns, he said, more young families are looking at incorporating vegetable gardens into their landscaping.
Although he said most people mention the cost of food, he's not sure that growing it always ends up being cheaper, particularly if gardeners fight the desert and end up watering too much. (See "The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden" for a cautionary tale about the ways gardening can go wrong.)
Planting to coincide with the monsoon, putting in sunken gardens to capture more water, and trying water harvesting are all strategies that should make sure increases in water bills don't cancel out the savings at the grocery store, Clark said.
Michelle Kuhns, the home-garden coordinator for Tucson's Community Food Bank, said 90 people signed up for the spring-gardening workshops, which typically have 60 participants.
To increase success rates and affordability, Kuhns recommends digging down 2 feet and mixing in 50 percent compost to make sure the soil is fertile. She suggests heavy mulching, with straw, for example, to keep the roots cool. She agrees with Civano's Clark that planting in mid-July to coincide with the rains is helpful.
Aside from the food itself, Kuhns said, there are other benefits, including exercise, improved mental health and pride in producing something to share with family and neighbors.
Or having tales to tell about the occasional rabbit, such as the one that made off with 72-year-old Clara Sciscenti's eggplant earlier this week.
Sciscenti, a retired cook, put in a garden last year when she got fed up with paying $1 for every pepper she bought. She's grown tomatoes, peppers, arugula, purple onion, watermelon and artichokes.
"I just got fed up with the price of vegetables in the store. Mine might not be as big, but they taste better and I don't have to worry about pesticides," she said.
Then she talks about those other benefits Kuhns mentioned. "As you get older, you want to see new life," she said. "And by seeing the plants come up, you see new life in front of you all the time."