A shaky economy, concerns about food safety and an urge to reconnect with the land have spurred a new generation of gardeners to grow their own vegetables.
Lori Erickson set a goal for this summer and fall: Buy no produce. That doesn't mean she won't be eating veggies. She'll be growing them -- all of them -- on her small city lot in northeast Minneapolis.
"I grow everything I can -- more every year," she said. Her homegrown vegetables taste far better than what's available in the produce section, she said, and she knows they're completely organic because she starts them from seed and uses no chemicals. "They're my babies," she said. "A lot of the plants from the stores have had chemical fertilizers."
Erickson, who chronicles her endeavors on her garden blog, is in good company this season. Urban vegetable patches are sprouting all over the Twin Cities, seeded by a perfect storm of environmental, cultural and economic factors.
"Interest has increased dramatically," said Paige Pellini, owner of Mother Earth Nursery in Minneapolis, who said many customers tell her they're tearing up part of their yards to grow vegetables this year.
"You can't control gas prices, but you can control your food sources," she said.
That's one reason Danika Hoffmann started gardening about three years ago, after buying her first house in Minneapolis' Bryn Mawr neighborhood. "The first year, I had flowers and one cucumber plant. I enjoyed being able to harvest something from my little garden," she said. "It feels so wholesome and satisfying to grow your own food."
Her garden now includes peppers, tomatoes, onions, herbs and parsley, and she enjoys checking her plants' daily progress.
"There's always something new happening," she said. "It's like having a little pet outside."
Growing your own food is as old as dirt, of course, but it's suddenly acquired shiny new cachet. Veggie gardening is a "significant new trend," according to the Garden Writers Association Foundation, which conducted a national survey in February.
"It's hot this year, in a way it hasn't been in years," said Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening magazine (www.organicgardening.com). The local-food movement is definitely a factor, he said. "It doesn't get any more local than your own back yard." A weak economy typically boosts interest in vegetable gardening, he added. And the growing interest in sustainability and simpler living is bringing in a new wave of enthusiasts.
"Vegetable gardening used to be the territory of men, generally guys over 55," Meyer said. "That clearly has shifted. Our online audience, in particular, is younger, much more likely to be female and urban."
Young urbanites are attracted to vegetable gardening for the same reason they're taking up knitting and handcrafts, he said. "They spend their whole lives in the virtual world and want something that feels real."
For David Toews, vegetable gardening provides a sense of satisfaction and a connection to his grandparents' generation. "They had to produce what they ate, while my parents' generation was all about convenience and prepackaged foods," he said.
His green thumb even led him to his fiancée, Sarah Green, whom he met online. "What piqued her interest was that I said I did my own gardening and made my own pickles," he said.
They recently bought a house in Minneapolis and have planted a large garden, where they plan to grow beans, peas, tomatoes, greens and even hops for brewing beer.
"It's a hobby that results in something at the end," he said.
While staples like tomatoes continue to dominate local garden plots, more gardeners appear to be experimenting with other crops and different varieties.
"Nothing beats fresh tomatoes," said Lee Kafkas, who gardens in Minneapolis' Whittier neighborhood. But he's also trying some more unusual edibles, such as Chinese eggplant. "I grow all the stuff I want to cook with."
Demand for heirloom vegetable plants is up "manyfold, compared to five years ago," said Tim Kornder, owner of Brewery Creek Farm in Belle Plaine, which carries "everything from artichokes to zucchini, as well as hundreds of different tomatoes and peppers."
Pellini at Mother Earth Nursery reports a continued brisk business in tomatoes, but said that greens, peas and ornamental edibles are gaining momentum. "And beets. It used to be we couldn't give away beet seeds," she said.
Organic Gardening's readers traditionally have wanted information on "the five basics: tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, cucumbers and carrots," Meyer said. They still do, but now there's increased interest in "gourmet ingredients, like radicchio, root crops, leeks and shallots."
Hoffmann, for one, said her vegetable gardening has gotten "a little more sophisticated" as she's gained knowledge and expertise. Last year, for example, she grew "all the components for pickles: cucumbers, jalapeños, dill. But it took too much coordination," she said. "The [cucumbers] needed to be picked every day and canned the day they're picked. It's a lot easier to go to the farmers market."
Fortunately for her, finding a farmers market is easier than ever, another byproduct of the soaring interest in locally grown food.
"The farmers markets are doing extremely well, so well that it's difficult for cities to find vendors," said Paula Pentel, urban studies instructor at the University of Minnesota. "The vendors are stretched because they're being asked to go multiple places."
More people also are buying shares in organic farms, she added, and there are waiting lists for plots at many community gardens.
Homegrown food is more than this year's fad, according to Pentel. Fears about E. coli contamination and foreign pesticide use are starting to change American habits, she said. "We're becoming more aware, as a culture, of the long-term costs of food coming from a long way away. Instead of assuming the FDA is making sure everything's OK, people are taking responsibility for themselves."Lori Erickson's blog: www.blogumentary.typepad.com/secretfarm
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784