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Mar 232009
 

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible

– Welsh proverb

The recession-fueled increase in home gardening of vegetables, herbs, fruit and berries is creating another boom: seed sales.

Seven million more households are planning to grow food for themselves this year than in 2008, a 19 percent increase, according to a recent National Gardening Association report. That’s a pretty © Atman | Dreamstime.comsignificant number, given the fact that 31 percent of all American households already garden for food. And it is likely that their 19 percent estimate is growing every day.

Of that 7 million, 21 percent will be gardening newbies, the report says. That translates into a lot of seeds, for a lot of plants, for a lot of people who are buying right now.

Seed sellers are seeing an overwhelming demand. The country’s largest seed retailer, Burpee & Co., has said that sales in January were up 20 percent compared with last year. Another report says that organic seed sales are up 46 percent from 2008.

Burpee’s CEO, George Ball, has been quoted in various publications saying his company is selling out of vegetable seeds . Other large seed retailers say their vegetable seed sales are up anywhere from 40 percent to 80 percent.

Smaller, regional seed sellers, many of whom produce heirloom and organic seeds, also are overwhelmed with demand.

Jim and Megan Gerritsen, owners of 55-acre Wood Prairie Farm in northern Maine, sell  Irish potatoes and many varieties of organic seed potatoes. They’ve been farming organically for 33 years, selling by mail order for 20 years and on the web for about a decade. Jim Gerritson estimates their sales are up 30 percent over last year, but frankly, they’re too busy to study the numbers.

“We’re working seven days a week to keep up with orders,” he said.

Organic and heirloom seed sales have grown by as much as 60 percent in the last two years, estimates Cricket Rakita, a board member for the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association. Rakita is also working on a Save Our Seed project to create an organic heirloom seed bank for the southeastern states. (So that those tried-and-true varieties that produced some succulent and tasty fruits and veggies are not lost in the march of progress.)

Credit the economic crunch, as well as consumers’ growing desire for natural – and locally produced – food for the increase. “Lots of people are just wanting to grow their own food. It’s a function of the economy. They don’t want to have to worry as much about” the cost and quality of what they eat, Rakita said.

Regionally grown seeds make more sense for gardeners, because every region has its own climate, insects, diseases and other growing factors. The big seed sellers produce seeds that tend to do well in the Midwest, the Northeast and the Northwest, Rakita said, but areas in the South and Southern Midwest are somewhat ignored. “Those varieties were starting to disappear and people were having to plant inferior seeds,” he said. Thus, around 2000, more small seed companies started springing up and the effort to preserve regional seeds gained momentum.

Jeff Moyer waxes eloquent on the power of a single seed. The farm director of the Rodale Institute (a research, educational and outreach organization with its organic roots reaching back to J.I Rodale’s push to grow organic back in the late 1930s), Moyer sees what can grow from a seed.

“As the economy changes, people need therapy, positive therapy,” he said, “and there’s therapy in planting a seed. There’s a sense of renewal that’s very powerful. People need that. . . . There’s a renewing of spirit.”

He emphasized the power of growing food. “If you can only grow one tomato in a flowerpot on the sill, it gives you a personal relationship with that plant. When you harvest your first tomato, you’ll inevitably say it’s the best-tasting tomato you have ever had,” Moyer said. “That starts to force people to ask the right questions at the point of purchase: ‘If I can grow the best tomato in the world, first-time out, why can’t you?’ ”

That single tomato seed can enhance a person’s maturity in relationship with what he eats. They get more involved and interested in how the food they eat was produced. “The power of a seed will do that for you,” he added. “It grows into something more.”

For beginning gardeners, it’s not hard to plant seeds in the ground and sprout them, just giving it 10 minutes a day. Some vegetables, berries and herbs are easier to grow if they’ve already been sprouted at the local garden center or farmer’s market, where buyers can ask about the origins of that transplant to ensure its roots are clean and organic.

The National Gardening Association is all about helping beginning gardeners. “A lot of new gardeners are calling us, asking how to make a raised bed, what they can grow, what’s the easy stuff and how do get started,” said Charlie Nardozzi, the association’s senior horticulturist.

He offered some simple suggestions: don’t over-commit to a big garden at the beginning. Lots of new and urban gardeners can stick to container gardening.”

The hardest part of starting gardening is just that: getting started. “The space can be as small as 3-by-6 feet. Keep it close to the house or a walkway. . . select something you want to eat. Don’t plant lots of beans if you don’t like beans.

Heirloom seeds are a subset of seed sales that can bring history to your garden. Holding onto seeds, trading them with neighbors and family members was common many decades ago. In addition to preserving strains of vegetables with old roots, the food from heirloom seeds is unique. “It’s not the same run-of-the-mill tomato. The flavor, shape, color is different. . . the flavor is better than with brand new seeds,” Nardozzi said.

Saving seeds from generation to generation is a way for a family to find history in a tomato seed, said the Rodale Institute’s Moyer. One group, Seed Savers Exchange, has been helping gardeners to save and share heirloom seeds since 1975. They offer a broad selection of heirloom seeds for purchase, as well as instructions on how to save seeds.

“There are a lot of very positive aspects (of home gardening) and it all starts from the power of a seed. “This economic downturn has pointed out to our generation that when you base your value and your worth solely on your job and money, that can be very temporary. . . . Most people aren’t going to plant a garden to live on, but there is a sense of ‘I can do this on my own, and I can rebuild my life,’ and it comes from gardening. . . and it can literally all start with the power of a few seeds.”

Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm says it a little differently: “I think we went off on a tangent on being overly materialistic and focused on money. As people’s pensions and retirement funds have evaporated, they’ve realized there’s something more, something that’s more real.”

There is a spiritual side of planting a seed and watching it grow, he added. “Even if they don’t talk about it, it’s absolutely amazing to plant a seed in the spring and see it come to fruition. There is a lot of empty striving in our society, and in the opposite end you’ve got gardening, good outdoor work. It results in bountiful goodness and is the most fulfilling activity,” Gerritsen said.

“It’s good all around from a societal standpoint. We’re better off as a nation of family farmers.”

OTHER RESOURCES:

A detailed seed resource guide is available on Rakita’s site, along with a healthy list of organic seed dealers.

The Organic Seed Alliance is an advocacy, educational and research organization aimed at preserving and maintaining restore and develop organic seed varieties, as well as keeping these unique genetic resources available for the future.

Another robust outlet for finding a variety of organic seeds is Local Harvest, a non-profit organization that promotes information about local and organically grown food across the country. They have a lengthy list of seeds that can be purchased on their Web site.

Green People is a directory of eco-friendly products, and they have a large selection of organic seed-producing companies on their Web site. The list is broken down by region and state.

PHOTO CREDITS:

Top photo of rack of seeds: © Atman | Dreamstime.com

Photo of hands holding seeds: Great Harvest Organics

Photo of sprouts: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Bottom photo of pumpkin seeds: © Bayaryasar | Dreamstime.com

Copyright © 2008 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media