By Stett Holbrook
WHILE I HAVE high hopes for President Obama's stimulus plan, I don't expect the economy to right itself anytime soon. I've always enjoyed cooking at home, but in an effort to save a few bucks I've taken to making things for myself, such as bread, pasta, sauerkraut and baby food, that I would normally buy at the store. And this year I've taken things one step further: I'm growing my own food.
I've got about 90 seedlings growing in my garage: tomatoes, lettuce, beans, arugula, cucumber, cardoon, broccoli, corn, watermelon and a few others. I gotten so excited about my garden that I probably started some plants too early. The guy at my local nursery had to remind me that it was still winter and I had plenty of time to sow seeds. But in years past, I was always too late to start a spring vegetable garden, so this year I'm counting down the days until the last frost—some time in early March—when I can transplant my little plants into 200 square feet of vegetable beds on what was a weedy backyard lawn.
I'm happy to know I'm not alone. In an article in The New York Times last year, the W. Atlee Burpee Company reported that sales of vegetable and herb seeds and plants were up by 40 percent over last year, double the annual growth for the last five years. George C. Ball Jr., owner of the seed company, said rising food costs were the biggest driver behind the rise in seed sales.
"Food prices have spiked because of fuel prices, and they redounded to the benefit of the garden," Ball told The New York Times.
The rising interest in gardening parallels a similar boom in home cooking. In November, Allrecipes.com, the No. 1 food site on the Internet, reported its busiest month ever, with 10.7 million visitors. The heavy traffic coincided with Thanksgiving, but the increased interest in cooking continues. Mintel International, a market research firm, reported about 60 percent of people surveyed in July said they were cooking more often and dining out less as the economy has worsened. Since then the firm reports that figure has probably increased.
While it's not so great for restaurant owners, I think one of the upsides to the downward slide of the economy is that more people are staying home cooking for themselves. Home cooking is not only cheaper than dining out but I believe it instills a greater appreciation for good food. When people learn what goes into making a good meal it allows them to enjoy it that much more. The same goes for growing their own food, too.
It remains to be seen how many of my fragile seedlings will grow into productive vegetable plants, but if just half of the seeds I've sown bear fruit the savings will be incredible. A pack of 50 tomato seeds costs about $2.50, whereas a pound of tomatoes usually sells for well over that. Then there's the taste. I'm a big supporter of my local farmers market, because I like supporting local farmers and the quality of locally grown produce, but I know a summer tomato plucked from my own back yard will taste even better. I'm going to become my own local farmer.
My main motivation for growing my own vegetables is having a steady supply of cheap and delicious produce, but there are larger reasons as well. I don't want to get all survivalist on you, but it's not inconceivable to imagine a day when it becomes necessary to supplement our food supply with homegrown produce.
In addition to rising food costs, the phenomena of global warming, water shortages, food contamination and dwindling agricultural lands all point to the need to reacquaint ourselves with dirt and shovels. Growing our own food may one day become a necessity rather than a weekend hobby. In the meantime, I plan on eating well this year.
Common Grounds Organic Garden Supply and Education Center 559 College Ave, Palo Alto, 650.493.6072
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