When the times get tough, the tough plant gardens


January 11, 1992|By Mike Klingaman

How bad is the recession?

The president hasn't a clue. His advisers are baffled. The nation's top economists disagree.

How bad is the recession? The answer is right in our own backyards.

Historically, tough times produce a wealth of victory gardens in America. For every manufacturing plant that shuts down, millions of tomato plants spring up.

How bad is the recession? Listen up: Seed companies are prepared for a banner spring, particularly in vegetable sales, says Mike McGrath, editor of Organic Gardening magazine.

"Seed companies will have one of their best years ever," says Mr. McGrath, whose magazine itself is breaking subscription records. "We're getting a huge increase in the demand for information about growing fruits and vegetables. Five years ago, the questions were about lawns and shrubs. Now people are pulling back to the basics. They're scared."

A study of recessions in the past 30 years has convinced Mr. McGrath that the victory garden is a strong indicator of a sluggish economy.

"You can chart every recession with a graph of vegetable seed sales. They are diametrically opposed," he says. "When sales are up, the economy is down, and vice-versa."

In good times, says Mr. McGrath, 30 percent of Americans will cultivate a vegetable garden. But that figure jumped to 50 percent during the recession of the mid-1970s, and to 42 percent during the troubled early 1980s, when more than 30 million people took up gardening for the first time.

"Now we're seeing the numbers rise again," he says. "Why? I think people buy seeds because they are literally afraid of going hungry, whether it is a rational fear or not."

All of this is good news to seed companies, who thrive in lean times.

"Our vegetable sales are up," says John Gale, owner of Stokes Seed Co. in Buffalo, N.Y. Flowers are another story, he says. "In a recession, people tend to plant something they can eat, rather than something they can look at."

Yet Mr. Gale is keenly aware of how quickly the veggie boom can go bust.

"When the economy returns to normal, there is always a big sale of lawn seed. That's when people cover up their gardens," he says. "They don't want to fool with vegetables anymore."

At Park Seed, where sales increased 5 percent last year, hopes are high for 1992.

"We expect a good spring. A recession forces people to stay home, and gardening is a satisfying, low-cost hobby," says Klaus Neubner, a Park spokesman. The Greenwood, S.C., firm is among the nation's largest mail-order companies.

Burpee Seed, of Warminster, Pa., tripled its sales during the recession of the mid-1970s. Burpee hopes to rebound from a disappointing 1991, which it blames in part on the war in the Middle East.

"National media events affect gardening, too. During the gulf war last winter, our phone lines died completely," says Jonathan Burpee. "People stopped ordering seed to watch the news.

"Hopefully, this spring, there will be no worldwide catastrophe."

Growing one's own food can save hundreds of dollars in grocery bills, says Bruce Butterfield, spokesman for the National Gardening Association. Yet for many people, a victory garden is more than just a hedge against recession. It provides a crutch with which to face the uncertain future.

"Some of us garden to assert a measure of control over what is happening in our personal world, when the rest of the world is falling apart," says Mr. Butterfield. "All people want is a stable environment at home."

Mr. McGrath, of Organic Gardening magazine, agrees.

"The advantage to gardening during a recession is as much psychological as monetary," he says.

"There's never a better time to have a garden than when you're out of work. The unemployed need to feel they can accomplish something. A garden gives you an appointment to keep every day, even if only for a half-hour."

According to Mr. McGrath, gardening may even help dislocated workers land new jobs.

"If you go on a job interview, you're going to come across as more self-assured than someone who doesn't garden or take part in a similar physical activity," he says.

"Gardening won't get you the job, but it can give you a head start."

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