WASHINGTON // When Michelle Obama recently made news for breaking ground on the first White House vegetable garden in 60 years, she was in good company. About 43 million American households plan to grow their own vegetables this year, a near 20 per cent rise over last year, according to the National Gardening Association (NGA), and seed companies are reporting unprecedented sales.
"There seems to be a movement in our country in the direction of either shopping for locally grown vegetables or growing your own vegetables and produce," said Rick Burns, a lawyer, who will be among seven million new home gardeners this year in the United States. Alisa Keimel, of Johnny's Selected Seeds, said home gardening started gaining popularity several years ago but got a boost when fuel prices shot up and more people spent their holidays at home in what has been dubbed "staycations". Now the price of oil has fallen, but the number of gardens keeps growing.
Johnny's seed sales to home gardens are up 50 per cent this year and the company's total sales - to home and commercial gardeners - are up 30 per cent, Ms Keimel said. "Food prices have been steadily climbing, and when you add on top of that the fuel crunch ? it pinches people," she said. Most American gardeners - 58 per cent - say they grow their own vegetables because they want better-tasting food, according to the NGA survey, and 54 per cent say they want to save money on groceries. Charlie Nardozzi, the group's senior horticulturalist, said households and neighbourhoods are also gardening to reduce their contribution to global warming and to be connected to their communities.
"It's not just an economics-based trend," Mr Nardozzi said. "I think it's really something that's a little bit deeper than that. There are a lot of other factors, too." Food safety is another factor for 48 per cent of gardening households, according to the NGA survey, and this is also something Ms Keimel says she has seen: "We've had three major scares of salmonella recently," she said, referring to the produce-borne bacterium that can prove fatal. "The best way to make sure you're getting safe food is to know what you're growing."
Mr Nardozzi noted that the average garden size is falling, as more people in cities and suburbs are growing in whatever space they have. About 57 per cent of US home and community gardens last year were 9.3 square metres or smaller, according to the survey. Mr Burns, the lawyer, fits with this trend. He and his wife plan to grow tomatoes, string beans and courgettes behind their row house in downtown Washington, DC. "It's going to be very small - just a little bit of soil around the patio," Mr Burns, 33, said. "I like the idea of eating something that you've grown yourself, even if it's on a small scale."
Most gardening outlets are beginning to see a rise in the number of basic questions about planting, and they expect more questions as the season progresses. About 20 per cent of this year's gardeners will be first-timers and nearly 60 per cent have gardened for less than five years. Organisations are preparing their online instructional videos and how-to pages. Although Mrs Obama seems to be a part of the gardening craze more than its instigator, many of the hundreds of people who lined up last weekend to view the White House gardens hoped to glimpse the lawn's newest addition - the vegetable plot the First Lady has been planting with a group of local elementary kids.
"I don't know if you were paying attention, but the President and I ? went on this long trip," Mrs Obama told students earlier this month, referring to the presidential tour of Europe. "The number one question I got as the First Lady from world leaders - they were all excited about this garden. Every single person, from Prince Charles on down, they were excited about the fact that we were planting a garden."
Sofia Hart, 33, a veteran gardener from Boston, heard the Obama garden was visible from outside the fences surrounding the southern lawn of the White House and was thrilled to discover that on the day of her visit last Saturday the grounds were open to the public for the semi-annual garden tour. "It was a great surprise," said Ms Hart, who has planted gardens while living in South America and Africa in addition to Boston. "I was thrilled to see the garden, even though it wasn't as close as I had hoped."
Already a supporter of the president, Ms Hart described the new vegetable garden as "just one more thing in a sequence of things that the Obamas are doing right".Not everyone is as pleased with the 100-square-metre Obama garden, which will use only organic fertilisers and insects like ladybirds and praying mantises to control populations of other harmful insects. "As you go about planning and planting the White House garden, we respectfully encourage you to recognise the role conventional agriculture plays in the US," Mid America CropLife Association, an industry group said in a letter to the White House that was posted on the blog La Vida Locavore.
"Conventional" agriculture allows for the use of chemical fertilisers. "America's farmers understand crop protection technologies are supported by sound scientific research and innovation," the letter continues. The White House garden is still organic, though.* The National