Friday, April 09, 2010

Growing business: More people buying veggie plants

Barbara Soderlin Journal staff | Posted: Friday, April 9, 2010 6:00 am

Brad Wilburn of Chadron, Neb., stopped by Nachtigall’s Greenhouse in Rapid City on Monday, ready to shop for the tomato, squash, Swiss chard, pepper and basil plants he hopes to grow in his garden this summer.

The only problem was he got there a little early — by about three weeks.

Inside the greenhouses, staff members were getting dirt under their fingernails transplanting the tomatoes, barely 3 inches high, from propagation trays into individual pots, where they will continue to mature before the greenhouse officially opens for the season.

Wilburn knew it might be too early, but said when the sun starts to shine, “The juices start to flow.” The contagious itch to garden has been a boon to area greenhouse owners, who say an increase in the number of home vegetable gardeners has boosted business during what have been slow years for other industries.

“I think I’m in one of the fortunate industries where the recession is actually helping,” said Carol Hallock, owner with her husband of Rockingtree Floral & Garden Center in Sturgis. “Last year was significantly more than the year before.”

That’s what Sid Nachtigall said he’s seen in Rapid City the past two years.

“There was a big pickup on vegetables last year,” he said, with people especially looking to grow staples such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers — relatively easy to grow compared with the expense at the grocery store.

Greenhouse owners say the recession has more people gardening because of the perceived cost savings at the supermarket and because of the resulting desire to stay home and cultivate their own gardens.

“I think in times of uncertainty, people tend to do things that make them feel more secure,” Hallock said. “One of those is being more independent. I think it has something to do with feeling secure and knowing you can grow your own food.”

That desire is showing up in places other than the vegetable garden, she said. People are also beautifying their lawns, adding landscaping and generally “making their house a home.”

Wilburn said he gardens just for the pleasure of it.

“It’s just enjoyable,” he said. “Some stuff just tastes so much better out of the garden.”

Greenhouse owners also say increased attention to health and food safety, such as first lady Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden, brings people outdoors.

“They know what’s been applied or not applied” when it comes to pesticides, said Tim Sime at Jolly Lane Greenhouse.

Sime said it’s not fair to count the home gardener’s labor in the cost of growing produce.

“That’s sort of a part of life, and if you’re enjoying doing it, then the time element is not a factor,” he said. Plus, think of the benefits. As experienced gardeners know, “It’s like therapy.”

With another boom year predicted for home gardens, Sime said Jolly Lane works to make sure new garden customers become repeat garden customers.

“That’s our job in the business, to make sure that the people that are new at it are successful enough that they don’t feel like, gee, that was a waste of time, I’ll just go back to getting it at the store.”

That means being  helpful with answers to questions about the right varieties, soils, sunlight and more.

“We try to get them all off and on the right foot so they have a good experience,” he said.

Contact Barbara Soderlin at 394-8417 or barbara.soderlin@rapidcityjournal.com.

Posted in Business, Local, Agriculture on Friday, April 9, 2010 6:00 am Updated: 5:30 pm.