John Carter, a 34-year-old local computer resaler, fancies digging in his yard and getting dirty. Doing so allows him to beautify his home and use the right side of his brain -- "the artistic side," he says.
Plus, "it's a good way to work off stress," said the Ellicott City resident, who spends four hours on his yard each week.
Carter is among a new generation of gardeners, baby boomers who have the income and the interest that is helping to give a boost to garden-related businesses.
"In general, we see that the baby-boomers are starting to impact the gardening business, spending more money than other age groups," said Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt. Business has been growing at a rate of 6 percent a year since 1987, and a significant number of the new enthusiasts are first-time home buyers, he said.
The interest in gardening means local cash registers are ringing, according to several retailers.
"People with higher incomes tend to have nice properties and part of having a nice home includes having a very nice landscaped property," Mr. Butterfield said.
Howard County, with a median household income of $54,348, ranks second in income in the state. And about 25 percent of its residents are between the ages of 35 and 49.
Nationally, the average household spent $296 last year on lawn and gardening supplies. But for households earning $50,000 or more, at least $500 was spent, Mr. Butterfield said.
Last week outside Sewell's Hardware and Home Center in Ellicott City, Mr. Carter, who just spent money on a new sprinkler, said landscaping gives him a sense of accomplishment.
"I guess I like hanging out there and getting dirty," Mr. Carter said. "I just like doing it."
He and his wife have planted tulips, daffodils and irises to upgrade the "shabby landscaping" that surrounded the home they bought four years ago, Mr. Carter said.
"It adds value to the home," he said of landscaping. Mr. Carter said he and his wife have probably spent between $750 and $1,000 on landscaping. "It's not cheap."
But baby boomers account for only a part of the increase in garden supply sales.
Like everything else, a strong or weak economy determines how the gardening industry fares, retailers said.
"When the economy tightens up, people hold off on buying big-ticket purchases, cars . . . and spend time at home in their yards," said David Simpson, general manager of Cherry Brae Garden Center in Clarksville.
The only certainty is that the industry's success always depends upon Mother Nature, retailers said.
For example, June 1991 was a scorcher in Maryland, making gardening less appealing, retailers said. Sales fared poorly that month, local retailers said, but then rebounded in the milder fall.
Last month, after a disappointing cold and wet spring in Maryland, Mr. Simpson said sales picked up at Cherry Brae. He declined to give specific dollar figures.
Vegetable sales at the store in June soared 25 percent compared to June 1991, and flowers surged 20 percent compared to last year, said Mr. Simpson. "It seems like everybody is getting into their gardening."
Erik Rosenbaum, president of Sun Nurseries in Cooksville, said sales at the nursery stock and landscaping store rose 30 percent in June compared to June 1991. People are buying all kinds of fruit and shade trees, azaleas, hollies and woody plants, he said.
"They [shoppers] didn't do it in the spring, so they're doing it now," said Ed Miller, owner of Grandfather's Garden Center in Columbia.
He said gardening enthusiasts are buying annuals, perennials, pottery, shrubbery and mulch. "We're not having anything that's just sitting."
Most of his customers are sophisticated, established homeowners or first-time home buyers, Mr. Miller said.
"It's a low-cost way of enjoying their homes," Miller said. "You can relax and enjoy being outdoors. Hear the wind (whistle) through the leaves."
Howard County boasts at least 300 community gardeners, people who don't have space of their own and pay $14 rent annually for 20-by-25-foot plots, according to the Columbia Gardeners Inc. The county parks and recreation department owns the land.
Jean Dyson, a fifty-something, retired social security worker, said the idea of having fresh vegetables hooked her into gardening, which she calls a "relaxing" activity.
An ex-city girl, she and her husband have planted and grown squash (her favorite vegetable), cabbage, kale and collard greens in their yard in their Ellicott City home for 10 years.
"The quality is so much different than the store's," she said. "Tomatoes are tasteless in the stores. Cucumbers are waxed and corns are starched." She said a day doesn't go by without one of them working in their vegetable, flower or oriental garden.