April 24, 2009 at 1:00 am

Frugal Americans find health and value in backyard gardens

Rent-A-Farmer's Trevor Johnson plants seedlings with Jonelle Bobillot last month at Jardon Vocational School in Ferndale. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Ferndale -- The shrinking economy is fostering a food revolution, one that is prompting Americans to return to their roots -- literally.

Consumers are revisiting the centuries-old feat of growing their own vegetables to squeeze pennies out of their shredded grocery budgets and provide a steady supply of nutrition for the dinner table.

"It's a huge boom. It's unprecedented. Sales have increased 20 to 25 percent so far and we are only halfway through the year," said George Ball, chief executive officer of Burpee Seeds, the largest U.S. mail-order seed company.

A report by the National Gardening Association shows 7 million more households plan to grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs and berries in 2009 than in 2008 -- a near 20 percent increase, and double the growth from 2007 to 2008.

"I know it saves me money when you compare it to the price of produce in the store," said Tracy Parrish of the vegetable and herb garden she plants every spring in her Ferndale yard. "When you grow it at home you can just go outside and get it for free."

Garden advocates have dubbed the renewed green-thumb movement "recession gardens" and the trend -- part self-sufficiency, part health-consciousness -- has even reached the White House where last month first lady Michelle Obama unearthed a grassy patch of the south lawn to start a fruit and vegetable garden for the first time since the Roosevelt administration.

"Growing vegetables at home has never been easier. Plants can be grown in the ground or in containers. There are many products on the market that can be used if you don't have space or enough sun in the ground," said Jennifer Youngquest, marketing manager with locally based English Gardens florist and garden center. The company, with seven area outlets, has seen double-digit seed sale increases, she added.

Youngquest said the home garden boom in Metro Detroit took off last spring as people reacted to food safety recalls and health reports that reminded them to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. But saving money at the grocery store has been the biggest draw.

A Burpee study says $50 invested in seeds and gardening supplies can result in $1,250 worth of produce annually.

Home gardeners have already been planting seeds indoors for tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers. The seedlings will be moved outside around the end of May, about the same time ground planting of lettuce, peas and radishes begins.

The average gardener will spend about five hours a week nurturing soil and struggling with some early letdowns.

For those lacking a green thumb, entrepreneur Trevor Johnson has started a new business called "Rent-A-Farmer" in which he offers the expertise, the seeds and the sweat. Homeowners provide lawn space.

"People have said they want a garden but 'I don't have time or I just don't have a green thumb.' There is a gap of that knowledge that our great grandparents had to tending to gardens ... and we have lost that," said Johnson, who has a degree in agriculture and is founder of Ferndale's Good Neighbors Garden.

"I set out to re-educate people who want to grow their own food and connect with each other," he said.

The help is not cheap -- Johnson charges $800 to cultivate a 10-foot by 10-foot area, plus monthly fees for maintenance -- yet his plan is to create self-sufficient customers who don't return.

"My business plan is I have no client for more than two years," he said.

jchambers@detnews.com">jchambers@detnews.com (248) 647-7402