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Keeping Up With the Younger Generation by Growing Vegetables
Seduced by a growing trend, this gardener dusts off the basement grow lights and plants seeds for flowers... and a few veggies.
by Denise Cowie - 4/1/2008
It has been a while since I’ve bothered to grow any of my plants from seed – except accidentally, of course. Come summer, I can always count on cosmos, balsam and cleome to show their cheerful heads somewhere in the vicinity of plants that were introduced to the garden years ago.
But this winter – maybe influenced by the gloomy thunderheads looming over the financial markets – I found myself dusting off the grow lights and the seed-starter warming mat in the basement and ordering packets of seeds from the catalogs, along with a 60-plug indoor “greenhouse.”
Soon the mailman was delivering packets of Coleus mix, short Cosmos, and my favorite Petunia hybrid, Tidal Wave Silver, which is not always easy to find in garden centers. And somehow I’d also ordered seed mats for a “container vegetable garden,” although I’ve been complaining for years that I don’t have enough sun to grow veggies. But there they were, enough mats for three eight-inch pots that I can move around to catch the sun – one for the cherry tomato ‘Sweetie,’ another for a big red bell pepper named ‘Karma,’ and a third for ‘Cut & Come Again’ lettuce.
A healthy trend
I don’t know what put it into my head to grow vegetables this year, but apparently I’m not alone. A few weeks ago in this space, I quoted Suzi McCoy of Garden Media Group in Chadds Ford, talking about a trend among young people to grow herbs and vegetables “because they are obsessed with healthy living and what they are putting in their bodies.”
Although I’d had the impression that younger people seemed to be showing more interest in gardening in general, it wasn’t something I could prove. Suzi, however, is expert in staying on top of trends in the gardening world (she is scheduled to speak on “What’s Hot in Garden Trends for 2009” at the annual conference of the Perennial Plant Association in Philadelphia in July).
But it’s not flowers that have them interested, she pointed out – and quoted research from the National Gardening Association that indicated vegetable gardening in 2007 increased 20 percent over the previous year.
Everybody is talking about it
Since then, I’ve been seeing all kinds of online stories and anecdotal evidence that Suzi is spot on, as usual. Her point of view was echoed by a national magazine editor who addressed a gathering of garden writers at the recent San Francisco Farm & Garden Show, who told his audience that 30-somethings were becoming much more interested in vegetable gardening.
The resurgence of vegetable gardening, especially among young people, has also been an ongoing topic among garden writers online, many of whom have seen their spring workshops and classes – which usually attract a small audience of older, knowledgeable gardeners – suddenly explode with young would-be gardeners wanting to know precisely how to do it.
And the survey says...
And to prove the point, along came the 2008 Early Spring Gardening Trends Research Report, just released by the Garden Writers Association Foundation (GWAF).
This survey, conducted in February by TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, a national consumer polling organization, shows that the numbers of consumers planning to buy garden vegetable and fruit plants as part of their early spring gardening purchases this year jumped seven percentage points over last year’s figures, to 39 percent of those surveyed. That figure beats annual flowers (38%), trees and shrubs (35%), and perennial flowers (31%).
Calling this “a significant new trend developing in the gardening market,” the report cited likely causes as “rising gas prices combined with increased food costs and a fluctuating economy.”
Burpee's chief saw it coming
None of this is a surprise to George Ball, the owner of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the famed seed company headquartered in Warminster. He has seen the trend developing for several years, partly through the reactions of Burpee’s customers. At Fordhook Farm, Burpee’s historic home in Bucks County, the kitchen garden has doubled in size this year.
“Vegetable gardening is really picking up,” says Ball, adding that “a lot of it has to do with health issues” for younger parents who want to ensure healthy eating for themselves and their children. Last year’s contamination scares surrounding spinach and lettuce no doubt increased their concerns. But that’s not the only reason, he feels.
“Vegetable gardening is perceived as being easier, with more immediate gratification,” he says. “There’s greater enthusiasm, or engagement, with vegetables for new gardeners. The basics appeal more.” And it’s fun, too – for men, especially, there’s more to do over the course of the gardening year.
Big red tomato is still king of the crop
“We get thousands of pictures of vegetable gardens” from proud gardeners, Ball adds. So what do they like to grow?
“Tomatoes, the larger the better,” he says. “An overwhelming majority choose big, red tomatoes, such as Supersteak (pictured top left), Big Boy (top right), Better Boy (second from top, left), and Brandywine (top center),” a much-loved heirloom tomato. But the F1 hybrid heirloom Brandy Boy is also in the “top 10,” he adds, because it is earlier fruiting and has higher yields than Brandywine.
I don’t know whether all these gardeners are starting with seeds or skipping straight to starter plants, but personally I’m not taking any chances. In addition to the seeds I’m trying to coax into exuberant life, I’ve tucked some market packs of lettuce and spinach under the lights in the basement, too.
New Varieties That You Can Trust
Seeds can seem a bit intimidating to novice gardeners, so it helps to know which varieties are All-America Selections Award winners.
These award winners are seed-grown plants that earned their bragging rights by being judged the best in independent AAS trials all over the country. Only a handful each year are considered good enough to get the award.
Just three new varieties won the right to sport the AAS’s red-white-and-blue shield for 2008 – one bedding plant, one “cool season” plant, and one vegetable.
An Osteospermum called ‘Asti White’ (pictured at right, third from top) is the bedding plant winner. It has large, pure white daisy-like flowers with blue centers, and has the added attraction of being drought-tolerant, and able to survive a slight frost – which means a longer season in the garden. The first Osteospermum, or Cape Daisy, propagated from seed, it was bred by Goldsmith Seeds Inc.
A charming Viola with a less-than-catchy name – ‘Skippy XL Plum-Gold’ – is the AAS Cool Season Award Winner. This cute little plant (pictured fourth from top), which grows just 6- to 8-inches tall and wide, has abundant little flowers with plum shades surrounding yellow centers with black “whiskers.” According to AAS, plants in the North “can be expected to bloom from spring to the heat of summer,” and should excel in containers and window boxes. It is from Kieft Seeds Holland.
The vegetable winner is a gorgeously colored miniature eggplant named ‘Hansel’ (pictured third from bottom). It produces finger-size clusters of eggplants on strong plants that reach no more than three feet tall, and the fruit mature earlier – in about 55days from transplanting. Small-space gardeners take note: ‘Hansel’ reportedly adapts perfectly to container growing, and in my opinion its fruit is pretty enough to grow just for its appearance, like ornamental peppers.
More New Varieties for 2008
There are many more new varieties of flowers and vegetables on the market for 2008, of course. You can find a great selection, all from seed or vegetative cuttings, on the web site of the National Garden Bureau.
In the new vegetable lineup, in addition to the eggplant ‘Hansel,’ there are all kinds of fun things to grow, from a red-kernel corn called ‘Strawberry Popcorn' (pictured second from bottom) to a Pak Choi called ‘Bonsai’ to a summer squash called ‘Moonbeam’ (pictured bottom right).
You can see them all, and read about them, at www.ngb.org. Just click on Gardening, then New Varieties, and then click on each variety for its photo and description.
To read about one expert gardener's choices for spring vegetable growing, visit: