Backyard gardens getting new look

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Published: June 30,2008

Not so long ago, it looked as if the time-honored backyard vegetable garden was seeing its last days. The folks “putting in a garden” were getting older while the younger generation were getting jobs in the city and moving into suburban homes with neat, manicured lawns.

However, due to the skyrocketing price of groceries and food safety scares, the backyard vegetable garden is getting a new look in two ways. A new generation of Mississippians is looking at perhaps raising some tomatoes, squash or okra. And, there are new, innovative ways to grow fresh produce, even with no yard at all that is both tasty and offers attractive landscaping, as well.

Time to grow

While some in the horticulture industry say they see a new generation of backyard farmers coming, they agree that there will be a learning curve. It may be a few years before home vegetable gardens begin to show a comeback. Those in the feed and seed business certainly agree.

“No, we’re not seeing an increase in business,” says Rebecca Christian of Delta Feed and Seed in Jackson. “We’ve been here 18 years now, and we see little difference in customers. People just don’t do gardens like they used to. It’s mainly older folks who are still raising a garden.”

When asked if sticker shock at the grocery store and all of the recent contaminated food issues should be making homegrown produce more popular, Bill Montgomery with H and M Feed Seed & Hardware in Edwards says, “One would think, but I’m not seeing it. It’s still older people who are growing a garden. I don’t see anything new there.”

However, there are some, such as Richard Butler, who are seeing a growing interest from those who have never before been backyard gardeners. Butler grew up on a farm, and, now in his mid-20s, is director of the Farmers Market in Jackson.

“I’m having more and more of my friends who are my age come up to me and ask about growing vegetables,” Butler says. “It may take a while, but I think home gardens will become less an interest and more a necessity.”

Butler is also seeing changes at the Farmers Market. Sales are up, he says, as well as the number of participating growers. And, the customers are getting younger, he adds. For those interested in fresh, locally-grown produce but do not want to or cannot grow a garden, the Farmers Market is attractive. (There are currently 43 farmer’s markets in Mississippi, with two more under construction.)

The ‘new’ garden

Butler says the Farmers Market’s offerings are changing, too. Recently, a grower was selling shitake mushrooms. It’s not just about beans and cucumbers any more.

Norman Winter, Mississippi State University horticulturalist with the Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center, says he is not only seeing new, prospective gardeners, but also some new, innovative and attractive ways to grow vegetables at home — even ones with little or no yards.

At industry trials held in the spring, Winter took a tour and found some intriguing plants and planting techniques for the patio garden. One company, Floranova, showcased a hanging basket of Tumbling Tom tomatoes, both red and yellow varieties. Winter found them attractive and loaded with tomatoes. He says while there have been cascading and vine-type tomato plants for years, none offer the number of tomatoes as the Tumbling Tom.

The company also offered Tumbling Toms in containers, and zucchini, squash and pumpkins were also growing in containers. There was bowls of leaf lettuce growing on decks. And, he says an eggplant dubbed “Slim Jim” can be grown in a field, as an edible landscape or in a container, perhaps mixed with flowers for an attractive arrangement.

Winter took that tour in late March and early April. Since then, food prices have risen even more and a salmonella scare involving tomatoes has caused nationwide alarm.

“As a result, sales in vegetable seeds and transplants have taken off for containers, edible landscapes and small square-foot or intensive-type gardening,” he says.

Winter adds that this is the best time of year to begin planning a vegetable garden. He says fall gardening offers many advantages.

“Fresh produce sure tastes good late in the year,” Winter says. “Think how impressed everyone will be when you serve them fresh tomatoes at Thanksgiving.

“Believe it or not, fall garden planting season is about six weeks away for several crops and a little longer for some others. The key is to just get out there and do it. Start now. I know it is hotter than fire out there now. But it will be well worth it.”

Winter advises to look for transplants at local garden centers, as well as seeds for some quick sow-grow-harvest products such as cilantro or basil.

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

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