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Home and garden departments are helping a new crop of customers get the gardening bug

Shoppers have shown their willingness to get their hands dirty in the kitchen — entertaining at home, making more home-cooked meals and mixing creative cocktails. This Do-It-Yourself mentality has extended into the home gardening sector, too, with shoppers' interest in food gardening consistently growing.

A whopping $3 billion was spent on food gardening last year. “The lion's share of that, over half of that, is spent on vegetable gardening,” said Bruce Butterfield, market research director at the National Gardening Association.

In fact, participation in food gardening has increased by 20% during the past two years, according to the most recent NGA report. The biggest increase in vegetable gardening occurred in 2009. Participation stayed level 2010, although the total lawn and garden category — which includes lawn care, landscaping and flower gardening — saw an approximate 5% slump in sales that year.

The popularity of different kinds of vegetable plants tends to vary by growing region. Although people do try planting different kinds of vegetables like onions or eggplant, Hy-Vee Floral Supervisor Rita Peters said the most popular vegetables in Hy-Vee's Midwest stores are tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, green beans and cucumbers for pickling.

In addition to growing their own vegetables, Peters said more shoppers are planting perennials because they consider the plants an investment.

Herbs are also big. The NGA found that consumers spent $428 million on herb gardening in 2010.

Peters said that many people start gardening with herbs in part due to the popularity of cooking shows and also because of the simplicity of growing these plants.

“That's something they can grow inside, year-round and put it outside when the weather's nice and bring it back in [during winter],” she said. “But a lot of them do start with herbs because that's an easy thing they can do.”

The recession may have encouraged some shoppers to try planting vegetables in their backyards. But, gardening has taken root and grown in recent years thanks to several of the same trends that are driving the local food movement. Gardeners feel that homegrown produce is fresher and they know how their plants were raised, for example.

“The recession brought people to reconsidering what their own economic benefit would be from having their own source of vegetable[s],” Sandy Hering, owner of Floral Marketing Innovations, Mattapoisett, Mass., told SN.

“And you know this goes side-by-side with the trend of people wanting to eat healthy food, people wanting to have control over the ingredients that go into their food. And it's kind of right there with the other trend of more farmers' markets, and the promotion of the sale of fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets.”

Butterfield agreed that home gardening is a way for some consumers to gain a sense of control.

“I think [it is] a combination of economics and better-tasting quality food” that attracts new converts to the activity, he said. “I've talked to a lot of folks that say, ‘You know, I can't do much about what goes on in the big bad world out there, but I like to feel like I can control what happens in my back yard.’”

Whatever their motivation, more shoppers are buying seeds and live plants, and retailers are taking notice. Sandi Probst, floral manager and events coordinator at St. George, Utah-based Lin's Marketplace, said that interest is growing in home gardens, community gardens and church gardens in her area.

“People are cooking more at home, and I think the freshness of having grown their own vegetables makes a big difference,” said Probst.

Summer heat is an issue for gardeners in Utah, and Probst said that rose shrubs and a heat-tolerant flower, the vinca, also sell well at Lin's.

Though for Lin's, the show stealers are a variety of heat-resistant tomatoes that thrive in 100-degree temperatures. Probst sources three varieties of tomatoes as well as squashes and cucumbers from the Future Farmers of America department at the local Snow Canyon High School. She pays the school the same amount as her other local growers and mentors the students, teaching them merchandising and how to learn from last year's sales.

Probst creates a special section in Lin's garden area just for the high school's vegetables. She said the plants are so popular that people call ahead to see if they are in stock, and people come from out of town to buy them.

And despite the uncertain economy, shoppers are still willing to pay for quality when it comes to plants.

At Hy-Vee, Peters said price points depend on how her customers are using plants. For instance, shoppers are willing to pay extra for the convenience of easy, ready-to-grow patio plants.

Hering is hearing much the same thing. “What I'm hearing from the industry is that it's a wide open market,” she said. “Of course, there are customers looking for the least expensive plants, but another trend in horticulture has been branded plants, and branded plants are increasing in popularity.”

To give an example of the wide variety of price ranges consumers are looking for, Lin's recently offered colored bowls and planters with different kinds of flowers in them, priced between $4.99 and $49.99 for Memorial Day.

Maintaining quality and appearance is critical, particularly when a floral department or garden center offers higher-priced items.

“The real driving force in selling garden plants is maintaining the quality of the plants and understanding the upcoming weather conditions,” said Hering. For instance, she's seen unwatered plants at a garden center ruined by a windy day.

Coupled with quality plants, good customer service can convince shoppers to pick up a plant for their garden. The average consumer shops for garden supplies in more than two locations, said Marvin Miller, market research manager at West Chicago-based Ball Horticultural. Since shoppers don't necessarily have loyalty to one store for this category, there is an opportunity for supermarket garden centers to win over their business with better service.

Probst said it seems like this year's gardening sales were robust at Lin's due to one-on-one time that associates spent with shoppers asking questions and offering suggestions.

“And a lot of people have moved to this retirement area and don't understand what they can and cannot grow here because of our heat,” she said. “So that's the main thing they'll ask you, ‘Well, what do you plant that doesn't, like, choke when it starts getting warm?’”

Hy-Vee answers shopper questions with its “Get Growing” television program on a local TV station where garden expert Jerry Kluver and the Get Growing team answer shopper questions on the air on Saturday mornings. The videos are available on Hy-Vee's website,

“There's just so many [questions], we can't always get them all on the air,” said Peters, who is part of the Get Growing team. “But the [questions] that we think hit a wider audience or there's a lot of people asking … those are answered on the air on Saturday morning,”

Hy-Vee also offers a segment on Friday evenings hosted by Peters and Kluver. “We talk about lawn care, we talk about planting mums or decorating for the season, so just a variety of things that are on there,” said Peters.

Unfamiliar problems regularly crop up for even the most seasoned backyard gardeners, so providing shoppers with access to information and a place they can have their questions asked is an important way to build loyalty and repeat business.

Miller also pointed out that much of the industry's recent growth has come from an influx of novices.

“We have a new clientele. I mean, we do know that beginning a couple of years ago, we actually were seeing new people getting into it.” Miller said this growth is possibly due to recent foodborne illness outbreaks, or even the influence of First Lady Michelle Obama, who planted the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt's “victory garden” during World War II.

Suppliers are getting in on the garden education, too. Ball's program Burpee Home Gardens offers gardening information through smartphone QR codes and a website, Miller said.

In addition to learning from websites, retailers and their own experimentation, Miller said some focus groups said they learned about gardening from their children, who learned about it at school.

And, not only have the people that have been gardening changed, but the places they're doing it have changed, too. Moving to an apartment or small space no longer means consumers say goodbye to their garden.

“One of the things that has been noted is there's an increased interest in urban gardens,” said Hering. This is an encouraging trend, she noted, particularly within neighborhoods with otherwise poor access to fresh fruits and vegetables.