By CLARKE CANFIELD Associated Press Writer
SCARBOROUGH, Maine – During World War II, the government urged Americans to plant “victory gardens,” backyard plots of fruits and vegetables that were supposed to ease reliance on the war-strained public food supply.
Today, Roger Doiron is repeating that call, this time to ease the strain of industrial agriculture on the environment and help people take control of what they eat.
“In a way, I’d say I’m trying to reinvent the suburbs and put food back on the suburban landscape,” says Doiron, a freelance writer and consultant who grows vegetables, blueberries, strawberries, apples, cranberries and herbs on his third-of-an-acre lot.
Around the country, people from Maine to California are spreading the word about the benefits of gardens in what some are calling a “grass-roots gardening movement.”
Doiron’s Web site, Kitchen Gardeners International, extols the virtues of taking control of your food while reducing the distance it travels from the farm to the fork, which some estimates put at an average of 1,500 miles.
Once common to backyards, kitchen gardens have become a why-bother sort of thing for most Americans.
Roger Doiron of Scarborough, Maine, assists students at Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Scarborough with their garden. The students, from left, are Ellie Patten, 7, John Wittmer, 7, Aidan Cohen 7, Eric Huber, 6 and Carly Randall, 6.
But now some say the pendulum may be swinging back. Between E. coli scares, global warming, the “buy local” movement, aging baby boomers with more time to spare and a desire to enjoy the freshest of fresh, a new wave of grow-your-own has begun.
Heather Flores started a “Food Not Lawns” campaign in Oregon several years ago, and last year authored a book by the same name. There now are about 10 “Food Not Lawns” chapters in the U.S. and Canada.
Flores, who lives in Coburg, Ore., hears from people all over who have been inspired to plant their own gardens, with reasons ranging from environmental concerns to simply wanting to get their hands dirty.
“There’s something about self-healing and self-worth that people feel with getting out in the home garden,” she says.
In Pasadena, Calif., Jules Dervaes five years ago turned his tiny house lot into an urban farm nestled between two expressways. He now harvests 3 tons of produce a year, gives tours and has a Web site to encourage others to follow his lead.
Dervaes says people tell him his story has inspired them to use their backyards for something other than manicured lawns.
“They’d forgotten what it was for,” he says. “What’s old is new again.”
It’s difficult to measure the interest in backyard gardening. Experts say it is strong, though the National Gardening Association says the number of homes with gardens in the U.S. has ranged around a quarter during the past decade.
Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center, a center for sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University, says food scares – think E. coli or mad cow disease – and natural disasters are arousing interest in where food comes from.
“It’s reached into the average consumer’s consciousness,” he says.
The retirement of the baby boomer generation also is fueling growth in gardening, says George Ball, president and CEO of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the largest seed company in North America. Burpee’s sales have been growing at up to 10 percent a year.
“When we face retirement or a slowdown in our lives, one of the time-based activities that is rewarding is gardening,” he says.
Doiron became a convert to home-grown foods while living in Belgium during the 1990s. There he became acquainted with so-called slow food (the antithesis of fast food culture), as well as the French protest against “La Malbouffe,” or bad food.
When he and his family moved in 2001 to the same Maine neighborhood where he’d grown up, Doiron noticed how few backyard gardens there were. He made it his mission to get more people to plant more gardens and prepare the food themselves.
Besides growing a smorgasbord of foods in his yard, Doiron holds neighborhood garden parties and has created an International Kitchen Gardener Day, to be celebrated the fourth Sunday of each August.
His Web site draws about 70,000 unique visitors a month, and his e-mail newsletter goes to 3,200 people in 80 countries.
Though Americans are embracing the organic and local food movements, many still have questions, Doiron says. Should you buy conventional broccoli from a nearby farm, or the organic variety that was grown 1,000 miles away and required hundreds of gallons of fuel to get to your table?
“But there’s no quandary whatsoever with food from your own backyard,” he says.
If that’s not enough to persuade people to plant a garden, then the cost savings might be. Last year, Doiron got one to two months worth of lettuce from a $3 packet of seeds.
“We went five months without buying a vegetable, and we ate like royalty,” he says.
And a new study out of St. Louis University suggests that young children in rural areas eat more fruits and vegetables when the produce is homegrown, and that garden-fed children prefer the taste of fruits and vegetables to other foods.
During World War II, some 20 million people answered the call to plant their own gardens in the name of patriotism. This time, Doiron says, the issue is about feeding the world, which is expected to grow from 6.5 billion to 9 billion people by 2045.
“It’s all meant to be working toward the goal of sustainability, which we have to be working toward if we’re going to feed 9 billion people nutritiously in the next 40 years or so,” he said.