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Popularity of vegetable gardens, farmer

It’s planting season!

The recent salmonella scare, linked to a peanut-processing plant in Georgia, has once again raised concerns about food safety. Coupled with the soaring cost of groceries, this has led more and more to turn to a time-honored tradition — the backyard garden or, for those with limited space, the patio garden.

According to the National Gardening Association (NGA), gardening in the United States is at an all-time high. NGA reports that from 1997-2004, the number of individuals who participated in lawn and garden activities grew 67 percent, and it is still on the rise. In 2007, retail sales of lawn and garden products to consumers totaled $35.102 billion, an increase of three percent over 2006. Do-it-yourself lawn and garden activities that saw the biggest increase in spending in 2007 include vegetable and herb gardening.

Feed and seed companies around the state generally report their business is up slightly, or at worst holding steady. They are seeing their usual clients — older gardeners who have space for traditional, large gardens and plant every year.

While perennial favorites such as tomatoes, beans and peas will be well represented in backyard gardens this year, new, less familiar produce is also available. A good example is cardoon. This is a plant that the Romans and Greeks ate as a vegetable. Related to the globe artichoke, the plant thrives in Mississippi’s heat and humidity. The entire plant, stems, leaves and main root, are edible. Another plus is while humans find them delicious, deer do not.

While feed and seed outlets are seeing familiar faces, lawn and garden companies are reporting a large volume of new customers, younger gardeners who have limited space and expertise and are drawn by containerized vegetables and/or those that can be grown in a hanging basket or on a trellis.

“Interest in patio gardens and edible landscapes is going through the roof,” said Norman Winter, Mississippi State University horticulturist based at the Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center. “We have known this explosion was going on in Europe and wondered if it would hit here, too.”

Winter said a big plus for containerized plants is that they not only save space, but also can be moved, allowing just the right amount of sunlight. And, they produce at a surprising rate.

“The containers don’t need to be large or extravagant to harvest a bounty of produce,” Winter said.

Another factor that consumers find attractive is the wide variety of vegetables and herbs that can be grown on a patio. These include such produce as eggplant, carrots, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, onions, zucchini, cucumbers and acorn squash.

And, yet another selling point for many of these plants for the backyard or patio is their form. Many are attractive, colorful plants that add pizzazz. For instance, cardoon, the newest Mississippi Medallion award winner, when at full height produces six-foot-long spikes with thistle-like, blue-violet or purple blooms, Winter said.

Another eye-pleaser is Sangria, an ornamental pepper. Winter said the plant produces a delicious sweet pepper. It also boasts colorful leaves and, when loaded with red or purple peppers, adds beauty and color.

For novices and veteran gardeners alike, a good place to start learning about new backyard and/or patio gardening products and techniques is the Mississippi State University Extension Service. It offers practically everything one needs to know. For more information, visit msucares.com.

Of course, some are not interested in planting, or are cursed with a “brown thumb.” More and more folks in this category are finding farmer’s markets an attractive alternative.

The number of farmer’s markets in the United States has grown dramatically in recent years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2008, more than 4,500 farmer’s markets were operating throughout the nation, a record number and well up from 2,800 in operation in 2000. Sales generated by farmer’s markets have been estimated to exceed $1 billion a year, with most of the money going directly to small family farmers.

The number of farmer’s markets in Mississippi has almost doubled during the same period. In 2008, there were approximately 40 farmer’s markets operating in the state.

“The increasing number of farmer’s markets in the state demonstrates the high demand for locally grown products,” said Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell. “Consumers benefit from the freshness and quality of locally grown products. Purchasing products directly from the farmers who grow them allows consumers to develop a special bond of trust with growers.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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