Sunday, December 8, 2013
It isn't just hype. Mainers, and Americans in general, are growing more of their own vegetables.
Sugar snap peas grow with other vegetables outside a Portland day care center that uses the produce in the children’s meals.
Staff file photo
The topic came up when I was talking about something else with Lois Berg Stack, an ornamental horticulture specialist with the University of Maine Extension in Orono and one of the state's top garden gurus.
She was wondering if all the publicity in 2009 -- from the White House down to Main Street -- meant that people were still growing vegetables in 2011, or if they had tried it and quit.
"Vegetable gardening is hard work," Stack said, "and if people didn't get good results, they might have given up."
The weather has, for the most part, been challenging. In 2009, it was cold and rainy throughout the season, and a lot of vegetables probably failed.
The next year was an excellent year for growing food -- except for strawberries and apples, which were hurt by a late frost after an unusually warm start to 2010.
This year, spring came late, and since then it has been very dry in most places.
Shawn Brannigan, part owner and general manager at Allen Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth, said it's hard to tell from his company's sales of seeds and vegetable seedlings whether more people are gardening or not.
"We had such a late spring, so it's tough to gauge if sales were down because of that or if fewer people are gardening," he said.
In 2010, he said, the weather was too good, as far as garden sales.
"I didn't think that was possible, but after the really rainy year before that, they just wanted to get out and enjoy it," he said.
But there are some new people coming into vegetable gardening.
"There has been quite a bit of interest in raised-bed gardening," Brannigan said, "and that is a lot of what the new gardeners are doing. It's just so much less labor intensive."
As an aside, there are a few problems he and his customers have had this year. First, the vining crops -- cucumbers and squash -- got off to a slow start because of the cold spring.
He put some cucumber seeds into the garden after his transplants did poorly, and they took off and surpassed the transplants.
And, probably because of the hot and dry spell, there has been a lot of blossom end rot. For about two weeks, there was a run of reports of cucumber beetles.
Sue Tkacik, a horticultural program aide working in York County, said there are still a lot of new vegetable gardeners, and they are coming in for help.
"Last year was an easy gardening season," she said. "It was almost too easy. Novice gardeners are saying, 'Last year everything worked, and this year I don't know what to do.' "
Tkacik said interest has been nurtured by vegetable gardens at many schools, the local food movement and by tainted food from different places around the world.
"People go to the farmers markets, and then they say, 'I could probably grow some of these things.' So it is increasing."
Roger Doiron of Scarborough is the founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, and conducted a national campaign to get a vegetable garden at the White House even before President Obama was elected. He says there are a lot more backyard gardens, but there still is a long way to go, as people try to get a little closer to their food supply and control what goes on the dinner table.
"At the peak of the victory garden movement in World War II, the country had more than 20 million new gardens planted in one year," Doiron said. "We are a still a long way from that."
And like Tkacik, he is finding that a lot of the new vegetable gardeners are running into problems.
"In most cases, these new gardeners are two generations away from having someone in their family grow their own food," Doiron said.
"They aren't growing up in a multigenerational home and seeing how their grandparents gardened. So it is a great time for educational efforts for organizations like my own and for the groups putting in school gardens."
Doiron said new gardeners have to learn that they have to plant a variety of crops: some that will grow in hot and dry weather, and some that grow in cool, damp weather.
That way they will have some crops that are successful, no matter what the weather is like.
Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at