DALLAS Alison Baum of San Antonio, Texas hopes to save money and eat better by getting her hands dirty.
She is joining the swelling ranks of Americans who have started backyard fruit and vegetable gardening, a trend rooted in a desire to cut costs as the recession bites, fears about the safety of commercial food supplies and popular views that organic food is better for you.
There is also a growing sense in these tough economic times that food security starts at home.
"This recession got me thinking that if things turned out like the Great Depression then it would be better to grow your own stuff and be in control. I've even ordered baby chicks," the medical intern told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"I've always thought it's important to eat organically but it's really expensive. So I thought it would be a good idea to start growing them myself and I am pleasantly surprised. It's easier to put food on your table than I realized," she said.
In her small yard she has put in some fruit trees, herbs and some vegetables such as bell peppers and parsnips.
Rising seed sales and one survey point to the rapid growth of food gardening, which Americans spent around $2.5 billion (1.7 billion pounds) on in 2008 according to the National Gardening Association (NGA).
According to a nationwide Harris Interactive survey conducted in January on behalf of the NGA, 43 million U.S. households plan to grow their own fruits, vegetables, berries, and herbs in 2009, a 19 percent gain from 36 million in 2008.
About a third of the respondents who said they planned to pick up the hoe this year cited the recession as one of their motivating factors. The main reasons were for better tasting food and to save money on food bills.
Almost half said they wanted to grow food they knew was safe. There have been a number of food scares in the past year or so including a recent salmonella outbreak involving peanuts and peanut butter.
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama has joined the trend, digging a plot on the south lawn of the White House to help provide her children and visitors with fresh, healthy food.
SEED SALES UP
Seed companies are reporting a bumper season.
George Ball, chief executive of privately held seed retailer and wholesaler Burpee, said vegetable seed and transplant sales were up about 30 percent in March compared to March 2008.
"The recession ... really pushed people over the edge and it accounts for most if not all of our growth. It is the phenomenal cost savings that it represents," he said, citing research that showed every dollar spent on seeds and fertilizer translated into $25 worth of produce from the ground.
Not everyone agrees that the cost savings are so great.
"You can't grow them as cheap as you can buy them," said Dale Groom, a Dallas County horticulturist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, a state educational agency. He cited initial costs such as equipment and time devoted to the soil.
First-time and veteran gardeners who spoke to Reuters cited a range of reasons from costs to the environment to security.
Peyton Tamburo, an actress from New York, moved to Arizona 10 years ago, opened a cafe and delicatessen and took up gardening. She parlayed the hobby into a business, and sells produce including organic basil in her cafe in the small southern Arizona town of Bisbee.
With the recession, she feels that what started for her as a hobby now gives her a sense of security.
"I know that if everything goes to hell in a hand basket, that I will be all right. You own a house, land, and you'll be able to feed yourself," she said.
In a Dallas suburb, Julia Stanley is taking her first crack at gardening this year on a community plot.
She said she wanted to "have fresh vegetables with no pesticides and chemicals on them." Her family moved to the Dallas area three years ago from the Chicago inner city where she had no opportunities to garden.
In a suburb of Washington, D.C., Ellen Gorman, who works for a small women's rights non-profit, said environmental and health concerns prompted her to start her first garden this year.
"My feeling is that there is a connection between preserving the environment and sustainable agriculture," said Gorman, who will be growing produce on a plot in the yard of her boss who will share in the fruits of her labour.
More people growing their own organic food -- which generally refers to foodstuffs free of pesticides and chemicals -- could be bad news for natural foods retailers like Whole Foods which specialise in this area and have been hit by the recession.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman; Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Bisbee, Arizona)