GARDENING WITH MALAYSIAKINI: Never too late to start

Never too soon to start a garden I got the urge two days before it hit the pussywillows.

I went on Monday to pick up some bird seed. But as I walked across the parking lot toward the store’s main entrance, the hint of warmth in the 50-degree air mysteriously rearranged my inner compass and I found myself aiming toward the garden shop instead.

“Nah,” my brain was saying. “We’re barely a week into February. Too soon.”

In fact, and confirming the truth of that observation, the outside gates to the garden center were still locked for the season. But the itch would not be denied completely. I left the store with 40 pounds of bird food — along with two trays of peat-moss pellets for starting vegetable seeds.

Then yesterday morning I was standing by the kitchen window when I caught a sparkle of silvery white among the bare branches outside. A last bit of crusty snow, I figured. But the more I looked, the more I realized: That’s not snow – the pussywillow buds are starting to open!

The early catkins will likely be undone by ice and snow before they can bloom, and those seed trays will just sit on a shelf unopened until April, but both the pussywillow and I had felt the first flush of spring fever. And though it’s still too soon to be throwing dirt around, it seems a lot of people are already thinking about starting or expanding a garden this year.

Just ask George Ball, the CEO of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the largest seed seller in the United States, which is headquartered in Warminster, just outside Philadelphia. “Vegetables are going to take off this year,” Ball said in a recent interview with Sarah Jackson of the Everett (Wash.) Daily Herald. “Flowers are down and vegetables are up. The recession, whether it’s real or perceived, has really gripped people.”

Ah, the recession — rising unemployment, rising prices, hard times for all. Just the kind of thing to get people looking for cheaper ways to put food on the table.

Last week, the Financial Times wrote that U.S. seed companies are reporting “a dramatic surge in early sales of carrots, tomato and pepper plant seeds.” Ball said sales of vegetable seeds were up 20-30 percent this year, after a similar jump last year — compared to more typical increases of about 12 percent. “Not only has demand not returned to normal but it has wildly increased,” Ball chortled. “It is just like a bonanza.”

Richard Chamberlain, president of Rochester, N.Y.-based Harris Seeds, told the Times his company’s sales of seeds to gardeners are up 50 per cent this year. “You’ll be seeing people digging over their lawns and planting vegetables,” Chamberlain said.

So, “Grow, don’t mow!” will apparently become the new battle cry in America’s suburbs. Of course, the question is whether you really can save a meaningful amount of money by growing your own veggies.

Burpee recently completed a study claiming that a “well-planned” vegetable garden will result in a 25-1 cost-savings ratio for home gardeners. In other words, the company says an investment of $50 for seeds and fertilizer can produce $1,250 worth of groceries as purchased at a supermarket.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. That “well-planned” part looks harmless but masks a world of effort and expenses. First, only some seeds can be planted directly in the ground. A lot of them have to be started indoors six to eight weeks beforehand. That’s why I bought those starter kits. So you need space, light — and a lot of careful tending — to get those seedlings up and running.

Then you have to remember that your garden is pouring out tomatoes, beans and zucchini at the same time as everyone else’s — in other words, when supply is greatest and prices the lowest. Fresh vegetables are most expensive in the winter — and if you want your homegrowns around then, to achieve that 25-1 payback, you’ll have to find ways to store, can or freeze them, all of which can be fairly costly enterprises. Yes, you need the $50 worth of seed and fertilizer, but you also will likely need a shed full of supporting tools and equipment. A roto-tiller isn’t absolutely necessary to break and fluff the ground , but you’re in for a lot of... umm... exercise without one.

Tillers cost at least $300, way more for a good one, and need repair and maintenance. Also figure on some rakes, shovels, pruners, hoes, stakes, gloves and so on. You’ll need good fences or wind up fattening all the bunnies, groundhogs and other critters in your neighborhood without a broccoli stalk left over for yourself.

Finally, your “savings” assume that your burgeoning backyard grocery isn’t wiped out by too much rain, too little rain, high winds, bugs, fungi, poor soil, acidic soil, alkaline soil — or random, inexplicable forces that mysteriously stunt or kill everything in sight. Two years ago, I got terrific eggplants; last year the blossoms came on and promptly fell off. Same plants, same ground, same everything — the eggplant gods just got grumpy.

So, yes, I cannot wait for spring. Gardening is great. I recommend it to everybody. But really, do it for the love, not the money.

Never too soon to start a garden
Carlisle Sentinel, PA

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