State, National Leaders Promote Gardening

WASHINGTON First lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and students from Bancroft Elementary School here planted the first fruits and vegetables in the new White House garden this month, and news of similar gardens being planted by first ladies of various states and municipalities has been sprouting left and right. Shelley Balanko, vice president of ethnographic research, The Hartman

WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and students from Bancroft Elementary School here planted the first fruits and vegetables in the new White House garden this month, and news of similar gardens being planted by first ladies of various states and municipalities has been sprouting left and right.

Shelley Balanko, vice president of ethnographic research, The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., said gardening is a way to connect with community.

“It's a way to bring beauty to an area, it's a way to nurture an area through the products of the food and also a way to nurture relationships. And, I think that's an important aspect that we don't want to overlook — it's emotional, it's social and it's functional,” Balanko said.

In Baltimore, Mayor Sheila Dixon is planning to turn the formal gardens in front of City Hall into vegetable gardens covering about 2,000 square feet. The Obama's garden covers 1,100 square feet of the South Lawn and will be planted with 55 fruits, vegetables and herbs, including peas, squash, berries and arugula.

Baltimore will be planting decorative urns, about 70 window boxes and several formal raised beds with spring and summer vegetable crops that will benefit Our Daily Bread, a charity which feeds 700 to 800 people a day. Similar to Baltimore's plans, the White House will also donate some of its harvested produce to a local soup kitchen.

Likewise, California first lady Maria Shriver also announced plans for a vegetable garden at the Statehouse in Sacramento. A 2-acre vegetable garden is being planted in the middle of Flint, Mich., and a garden is reportedly being planned around the Kingston, N.Y., town hall. The first family of Georgia is discussing an official garden, and Maryland's first lady is planning a vegetable garden for Government House in Annapolis, too.

These high-profile efforts could give a boost to the growing home-gardening movement, which has laid fallow for years. While consumption of homegrown fruits and vegetables has declined since 1984, 2008 is the first year where consumption increased slightly and remained fairly steady. The NDP Group, a Chicago-based market research company, said recently that the White House effort to promote growing and consuming homegrown fruits and vegetables might reverse a decline in the number of such “eatings” per American, or it might also not have much of an impact at all. Average annual consumption of homegrown fruits and vegetables fell from 95 “eatings” in 1984 to a low of 25 in 2005, before rising to 28 in 2008, according to NPD data.

“It's really for somebody who has time or, to put it another way, when you're time-rich in your life, which tends to be when you're older, you're more likely to garden,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst, NPD Group.

According to the NDP report “Eating Patterns in America,” married couples ages 65 to 75 eat the most homegrown fruits and vegetables of any household group.

Second is the 75-and-older age group, followed by affluent empty-nesters, then dual-income couples with no children. Affluent singles were the least likely to consume homegrown vegetables, according to the report.

“I think the economy gives you a justification to start the labor of gardening, but over the long run, the effort is going to have a bigger impact than the economy,” Balzer said.

Still, 21% of food gardening households in 2009 will be new to gardening, according to a 2,559-household survey the National Gardening Association conducted in January. The survey also states that the main reasons given by households for growing their own food include: for better-tasting food (58%), to save money on food bills (54%), for better-quality food (51%) and to grow food they know is safe (48%). Thirty-four percent of households also said that the current recession is motivating them either very much (14%) or a fair amount (20%).

While growing a garden is work, Balanko said she has found that emotionally, gardening seems to be a way to decompress and de-stress, and added that gardening will continue to be popular with shoppers who prefer organics and identify with environmental concerns.

“We have noticed a trend toward home gardening and what we noticed is that it comes from an interest in organic food and also an interest in sustainability,” said Balanko.

“We also hear consumers, especially parents, using home gardening as a means to educate their children and connect them back to nature, so I think the Obamas' garden has that appeal as well.”