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Back to the land

There are reasons aplenty for the sudden growth of new gardens

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / May 27, 2009

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Flavia Graf Reardon is growing things. Lots of things. In the garden she shares with her husband, Tim, there are onions, leeks, carrots, peas, rhubarb, kale, collards, spinach, broccoli rabe, salad greens, raspberries, two kinds of cherries, currants, gooseberries, and many varieties of herbs. Far from rural, this homestead is a few blocks from Egleston Square on the Jamaica Plain/Roxbury line, where you're as likely to hear bass thumping from the cars on nearby Washington Street as crickets.

"It is incredibly satisfying," she says. "There's the whole mystery and magic of planting the seed. Then there's the taste of things you've just picked and grown."

This year brings a set of circumstances - a recession, health scares stemming from the food supply, interest in eating locally, a garden on the White House lawn - that has an increasing number of people thinking about producing their own food. City dwellers are no exception. Reardon, a mother of two who teaches literacy at the Boston Renaissance charter school, has room to garden in her yard, and the family is in the process of purchasing the property next door. They have the soil tested for contamination before planting and raised beds are another way to ensure safety. Much urban production is catch-as-catch-can: on fire escapes and decks, in containers in tiny yards, wherever there's light to coax a seed to sprout. Community garden plots, too, offer a fertile patch in the midst of concrete.

"This year almost every garden has a waiting list," says Valerie Burns, president of Boston Natural Areas Network, which acts as a clearinghouse for the 3,000 community garden plots in the city. "People have the gardening craze, absolutely. We knew it when we started to get calls about plots in January. We usually start to hear in March."

Gardening is on the rise across the board. A National Gardening Association study (sponsored by the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.) found that 43 million US households plan to grow their own food this year, up 19 percent from 2008. At the seed company Burpee, says spokeswoman Kristin Grilli, "We are noticing a huge increase. We started noticing it last summer when food prices went up, but this year as of March, sales for vegetables are up 30 percent over last year's growth." The normal growth rate is 10 to 15 percent a year, she says.

People are also raising chickens for their eggs. At Ferestien Feed & Farm Supply in Foxborough, orders for baby chicks have increased from last year, says Robert Ferestien. This month Codman Community Farms in Lincoln offered classes on keeping laying hens in a backyard. Raising poultry is prohibited in Boston proper, as it is in many cities; efforts to change these laws are cropping up everywhere from Arlington to Philadelphia to Provo, Utah.

It should come as no surprise that interest stems in part from the economy: For mere chicken feed, one can have a steady supply of fresh eggs and vegetables. Indeed, the National Gardening Association survey found that 54 percent of people cite saving money on food bills as a reason for growing their own. Yet it isn't the main motivating factor. Survey respondents also said they were doing it to have better-tasting food (58 percent), better-quality food (51 percent), and food they know is safe (48 percent). Some wanted to get back to basics (25 percent) or live more locally (22 percent).

This is more than a trend, says Cornelia Hoskin, who helps run Homegrown.org, an online community founded by Farm Aid. "I would absolutely call this a movement, a cultural shift, even. It's the desire to have a real, authentic connection to what is in your life, be it your food or your clothing or things you make a home with. The popularity of crafting and canning and all these things - we're going back to these rural arts. It's what your grandmother did, and we've lost that connection to slowing down and taking care in what we do in our lives."

There's historical precedent for this activity. Victory gardens were considered morale boosters as well as civic duties during World War I and II. In the '60s and '70s, people sought refuge in the back-to-the-land movement. Today, there's a new element in the mix: the Internet. People who want to learn how to keep bees or start composting only have to log on. They will find sites about raising chickens in the city, groups discussing heirloom seeds and home canning, and instructional videos such as those at GardenGirlTV.com, hosted by Patti Moreno, who has turned her Roxbury property into a mini-farm.

"Back in the '70s, when people went back to the land, they went off and built cabins and started gardens, and it was very isolating," says Carleen Madigan, editor of the new book "The Backyard Homestead." "I've been reading a lot of blogs that people keep, just telling about the kinds of experiments they're doing, what they're trying in their own little yards. It creates this virtual community."

Mark Cutler, a manager at Mahoney's Garden Center in Brighton, says he is seeing an uptick in questions from gardening novices. "More and more people are freely admitting they don't know anything about gardens and this is their first time trying," he says. "It's all linked into the organic movement and the green movement."

In some parts of the country, generally those with longer growing seasons, people are trying to produce the bulk of their own food, often chronicling their journeys online. In New England, our goals tend to be more modest.

"Homesteading is out of reach for most people," Hoskin says. "We'd love to have 50 acres in Vermont, but how are we going to make a living and when are we going to see our friends? So I can't build a stone wall, but I can make preserves from strawberries I get at the farmers' market. It's a piece of a lifestyle that connects back to the earth."

That can be reward enough. "There's a picture we have of Martina, who is 3 years old, holding a 3-quart bowl completely full of raspberries," Reardon says of her daughter. "You could never buy that many. It would cost like $100. It just gives you a feeling of real wealth having an excess of delicious things that take time and care to grow."

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.