Probing Question: Why are Americans turning back to home gardening?

little boy in overalls holding basket of tomatoes
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Amid today's bankruptcies, foreclosures and unemployment, one industry is flourishing: vegetable seeds. This year, some suppliers have reported huge increases in seed sales while others have simply sold out. The reason? A grow-it-yourself trend that is germinating a 19-percent increase in home gardening, according to the National Gardening Association. First Lady Michelle Obama firmly implanted this trend on the national consciousness earlier this spring when she dug up her famous manicured backyard for an organic vegetable garden. So, why the sudden interest in returning to our roots?

"What we put on the table is a political statement." says Al Luloff, professor of rural sociology at Penn State. "I think we're saying we're tired of being tied to an agriculture industry that is no longer local. We're saying we want to know what's been added to our foods." People are also drawn to the "existential" experience gardening provides, he adds. "There's joy and pleasure in working the soil with your hands, and nothing tastes better than something you've grown yourself."

Today's trend "is really old wine in new bottles," Luloff says, pointing to America's long history of gardening during tough times. The economic depression of the late 19th Century sprouted a wave of community garden projects. A few decades later, as World War I and the Great Depression strained America's economy, gardening became a common way to seed self-sufficiency. During World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt planted a "victory" garden on the White House lawn, encouraging citizens to grow food themselves to conserve for the war effort. At their peak, victory gardens squeezed into backyards and community spaces provided 40 percent of America's fresh produce, notes Luloff.

We may be heading back to that era of self-sufficiency. Early this year, sustainable gardening activist Roger Doiron collected 100,000 signatures for his "Eat the View" campaign, which successfully petitioned our new President and First Lady to follow Eleanor Roosevelt's 1943 example. "When I started up this campaign," Doiron wrote in a New York Times blog post, "the goal was not only to alter the White House grounds, but our broader social and cultural landscape."

Though savings on skyrocketing food costs may be the main motivation for some gardeners, Luloff thinks there's more to it than money. "I don't think if the economy turns around tomorrow, President Obama's going to rip his garden out," he says. "In the larger view of things, sustainability and concern for the environment has a lot to do with this movement."

Industrial agriculture is the nation's fifth largest petroleum consumer, devouring 96 million barrels of oil to synthesize the fertilizer needed to grow crops where intensive cultivation has stripped the land of its nutrients, he notes. Food distribution guzzles an additional 45 million barrels, shipping the average tomato 1,500 miles from industrial farms in the Sunbelt to your salad.

People are recognizing the need for a more ecologically responsible approach, says Luloff. Just as environmentalists have long stressed the importance of watersheds, proponents of sustainable agriculture use the concept of the "foodshed" to illustrate the dilemmas of our present distribution system.

Traditionally, a city's demand for food supported agriculture in the surrounding region, Luloff explains. The larger the urban core, the larger the region of farmland it could support. "But we don't have a local foodshed today," he notes. "We took our farmland and turned it into homes, because we could bring in crops from Texas, Florida, and California at a price competitive with what we could grow here. Now the foodshed stretches from Arizona and Florida through Canada. We get our apples from Washington, our potatoes from Idaho, our fresh produce from overseas."

This sprawling arrangement has destroyed any notion of seasonality, Luloff says. "I remember a time when you anxiously awaited crops by seasons. Now you get those crops anytime you want." Children also lose something under this model, he adds. "All they see is these packaged goods. The connection between what we eat and where it comes from has been totally lost."

Luloff attributes the recent spike in home gardening partly to the growing popularity of organic food. Instead of paying a premium price for the guarantee that their food is as nature intended, he suggests, people today are looking to their gardens for a cheaper way to get that assurance.

"Anyone will say the stuff they grow on their own or pick off a tree is better than the produce they get at the store, even if it's only in their heads," he says. "There's nothing like picking corn or asparagus right from the patch and two minutes later steaming it and eating it," agrees Jacquie Johnson, a community garden organizer in State College, Pennsylvania. Apart from nourishing the body, gardens nourish the soul, she adds. "I think community gardens are not just pieces of land, but are ideas around which groups of people can bond and become community. A lot of us come home from work and wind up standing around chatting, and eating our dinner together right off the vine."

"Dinner is a political statement," Luloff emphasized. "Growing things in your back yard is empowering yourself to help feed your family, and to teach them the importance of nurturing the Earth. And if we nurture the Earth, the Earth will nurture us. I think that's a real political statement. Let's get our kids' hands back in the dirt."

A.E. Luloff, Ph.D, is professor of rural sociology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and co-chair of the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment Dual-Title Intercollege Graduate Degree Program. His email is aeluloff@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 13, 2009