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Recession gardening takes bloom

Linda Varela soaks her soil trays before planting seeds in her south Spokane greenhouse last week. Says Varela, "I get so excited when I see things popping up. I'm like a kid in the candy store." (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Linda Varela soaks her soil trays before planting seeds in her south Spokane greenhouse last week. Says Varela, "I get so excited when I see things popping up. I'm like a kid in the candy store." (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Although the snow has barely – maybe – stopped flying, people are getting ready to garden.

Spokane Valley resident Sherry Primm is hoping to improve on the last several years of effort in her backyard garden. “I tend to grow weeds,” she said.

Gardening rookie Cynthia Lucas, meanwhile, is looking to grow vegetables in containers outside her apartment – and to pick up some of the gardening skill of her daughter, Brandy Lucas, who wants to branch out from orchids and other difficult plants into growing food this year, as well.

“This is where I’m starting” as a gardener, Cynthia Lucas said Saturday morning at a class on growing your own food put on by the Master Gardeners program of Washington State University and Spokane County. “I don’t have a green thumb. I’d like to have one.”

There’s a booming interest in gardening this recessionary spring, both here and around the country. More and more people – looking to save on food and perhaps to eat more organic, local produce – are planning to plant vegetables, whether in full gardens or in containers on the patio. Seed companies are predicting sales increases of 25 percent or more, and the planting of a White House garden by first lady Michelle Obama has raised the profile of gardening even higher.

Bob Mauk, the “president/owner/dishwasher/janitor” of Northwest Seed and Pet, said sales of gardening supplies are way up, even at this early stage of the season.

“We’ve seen significant increases based on where we were last year at this time,” Mauk said. “I’ve talked to quite a few people that this is their first time, and they don’t know what to do.”

Mauk, who’s never grown a garden, is thinking about joining in. “I think I’m going to try it this year,” he said.

Penny Simonson, program coordinator for the Master Gardeners, agreed that there’s a growing interest among new gardeners. Enrollments in the Master Gardeners’ Grow Your Own Food courses are strong, and she said the program also is hearing more inquiries from people at its clinic and resource center at 222 N. Havana St.

The nonprofit National Gardening Association predicts that the number of homes growing vegetables will increase more than 40 percent this year over two years ago.

“As the economy goes down, food gardening goes up,” Bruce Butterfield, the group’s research director, told USA Today. “We haven’t seen this kind of spike in 30 years.”

The rise of gardening in tough times has a long tradition. Many people are recalling the Victory Gardens of World Wars I and II – a practice that was part of a national effort to encourage people to garden as a way of easing pressure on the food supply. The gardens were promoted as a patriotic part of the war effort at home, and people often planted them on city rooftops or in tiny plots of land – anywhere they might grow a bit of food.

“Victory Gardens are back in fashion,” master gardener Joann Lopata told a packed class on Saturday morning – as she showed a slide of a promotional poster from World War I that read: “Uncle Sam says GARDEN to cut food costs.”

Primm, the Spokane Valley resident at Saturday’s Master Gardener’s class, said her hard-times motivation for growing food is to help others. She’s planting extra food to give to the Plant a Row program through the Second Harvest Food Bank.

There are also community gardens being organized in several Spokane neighborhoods, with neighbors sharing plots in larger gardens. You can find out more about these projects at

If more people are flocking to gardening because of the recession, longtime gardeners say that’s a good thing. Many of them say saving money is just one benefit.

“I do save money, and I try to grow organically,” said Linda Varela, who grows things in her greenhouse, a traditional garden, and lettuces and herbs in patio containers. “But basically I just love to grow things. I just love to do it.”

Varela was buying seeds and supplies last week at Northwest Seed and Pet. While it’s too early to plant most crops in the ground, many gardeners are getting a jump on the region’s short growing season – which runs, on average, between the typical last frost day of May 15 to the typical first day of frost Sept. 15 – by starting seeds indoors. Varela plans to try some new vegetables this season, including leeks and bok choy, but she typically keeps her fledgling veggies indoors until well past May 15.

“I often wait until the beginning of June, because I just don’t trust our weather,” she said.

Gordon Moore, of Malden, was also shopping for seeds. He grows a big garden every year, canning vegetables and giving some away.

“It does save money and it’s healthier,” he said. “Between the exercise and the vegetables, it affects your health.”

One thing gardeners in this region agree on is that the Inland Northwest can be a tough place to grow a garden, thanks to the short growing season.

“You can see what our challenges are when it’s still snowing in the first part of April, and we’re saying it’s time to start a vegetable garden,” Simonson said.

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