Dawn Steward was one of many rookie gardeners who tried growing vegetables for the first time last year. But her yields were underwhelming. "I didn't know what I was doing," she said of her attempt to start peppers and shallots from seed in her St. Paul home. "They were fine until I watered them. Then they all died. I think it was my lack of experience."

Still, that didn't dampen her enthusiasm. Homegrown produce has too many benefits not to keep trying, she figures. "It cuts down on buying that kind of stuff from the grocery store. It's healthier -- I don't have to worry about pesticides. And I get the satisfaction of saying, 'Look what I did.'"

Steward won't be alone. All signs point to another bumper year for veggie gardening, an age-old practice that had nearly fallen out of favor. But it flourished last year, fueled by an influx of new gardeners, according to a study by the Garden Writers Association Foundation (GWAF). When asked about their plans for 2010, 37 percent of gardeners said they planned to increase their edible gardens.

"Last year was the tip, when we first saw the resurgence in vegetable gardening," said Susan Bachman West, senior hard-goods buyer for Bachman's. "People were quite successful, and now they're hooked." She's seen more customers perusing seed racks, and seed companies are reporting brisk early sales, she said. Two seed-starting seminars at Bachman's last month drew bigger-than-usual crowds.

"Everybody was astonished how full the rooms were this year."

Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis also hosted a capacity crowd for its seed-starting class earlier this year, according to co-owner Paige Pelini. The "Beginning Urban Vegetable Gardening" class filled up rapidly, and this year, Mother Earth added an advanced class.

"From what I can tell, people got a taste of it and really got into it," Pelini said. "A lot of people who started new last year were encouraged and want to make their gardens bigger and better."

Learning curve

That doesn't mean all those newbies had great results. According to the GWAF study, the No. 1 reason for planting less this year was lack of success in 2009. Some of Pelini's customers complained that they planted too many zucchini or tomatoes and were overwhelmed with produce, she said. Or, at the other extreme, some new gardeners griped that they didn't plant enough green beans to harvest a full meal's worth at one time.

Container gardening, a hot category, got mixed reviews when it came to growing veggies. "I heard from people who are really excited about containers, and people who were disappointed," Pelini said. Growing veggies in a pot might seem easier than growing them in a bed, but it's hardly a low-maintenance method. "With a container, you are the waterer. It's like having a puppy."

Maybe that's why not everyone is taking the DIY approach to growing their own food. A Backyard Farm, a service that installs and maintains residential veggie gardens, is bracing for a busy spring, according to co-owner Joan James. The service was a start-up last year; by early February, it was already fielding calls and e-mails from customers wanting garden plots, she said. "Last year, we had one crew. Now we're going to need two or three."

Some customers want to learn how to tend their gardens themselves, but others are seeking a completely turnkey garden, James said. "They want us to do it all."

Why homegrown's hot

Factors driving the veggie-garden resurgence are the same as last year, just gathering more momentum. Finances and the faltering economy remain a big factor. (Supplementing the household food supply was the most commonly cited reason for growing vegetables, according to the GWAF.)

For Steward, it's a no-brainer: "You can spend $2.99 on a carton of cherry tomatoes -- or just get them off the porch," she said.

Taste is another motivator. "It's taking off because it's so satisfying," said Twin Cities native Cindy Pawlcyn, now a Napa Valley chef/restaurateur and one of the pioneers of the "farm-to-table" movement. "Things taste so much better when they're fresh. There was a long period of time when everything came from the grocery store. We've sacrificed flavor and variety, and dumbed it down to 'What's the best tomato for packaging?' People got kind of bored."

So what are today's veggie gardeners planting? Easy-to-grow crops, such as beans and lettuce, are perennial favorites, according to Bachman West, because "there's a high success rate."

But as gardeners gain experience, they're getting more adventurous, trying to grow not just the basics but the variations they're used to seeing on restaurant menus, at farmers markets and upscale groceries.

"People are really into heirloom varieties," James said.

Food has fashion cycles, just like clothing. "You do see vegetables go in and out of style," Pelini said. "Eggplant was out, but now that restaurants are putting it on menus, it's popular to grow. Beets are still hot, hot, hot, as well as greens, chard, dino kale and arugula."

The humble potato also has buzz this year, according to Bachman West. They and other root vegetables are good crops for those concerned about food safety. "If you want a true, organically grown root vegetable, they're quite expensive in the supermarket," she said. "You can grow them for a lot less than buying them."

But even spud lovers are venturing beyond the basics. "I ordered more heirlooms, and funky varieties of potatoes," said Pelini.

Pawlcyn is such a spud fan that she put out a news release, "Get to Know Your Great-Grandfather's Potatoes," touting heirloom varieties and seed sources. "I hope they take off like tomatoes did," she said. Growing up in Golden Valley, her father always grew heirloom potatoes. "I love them. They're like little treasures you dig up. They all have different flavors and textures, different starch content, different colors on the plate."

Even rookies can have success with heirloom potatoes, Pawlcyn said. (Her picks for beginners? German butterball, bintje and Russian banana fingerlings.) "You want something prolific, so you feel like you accomplished something."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784