Earning with Edibles

July 06, 2009
Written by Brian Minter
As a garden centre industry, we are very fortunate to be one of the industries least affected by the international recession. In speaking with many owners across North America, generally the season seems to be unfolding better than anticipated. Giftware, colour, unique plants, seeds and novelty items are doing well. The biggest star, as we all expected, has been edibles.

A recent webinar with American and Canadian garden writers, in conjunction with the National Garden Bureau, revealed that food gardening has jumped double digits in the United States. Curiously, this is not because of the recession, but for a whole list of other reasons. Eating healthier, enjoying better flavours, accessing pesticide-free foods, saving on food costs and having more self-reliance were just some of the reasons listed. This means food gardening is just beginning to explode.

Another interesting fact was that 51 per cent of all food gardening was done in containers. The average size of food gardens was about 600 square feet, and the cost of seeds, plants and fertilizer was about $70 with a return of about $500 to $600. It was also one-seventh less expensive to grow one’s own food versus buying it at a produce market.

Taking advantage of this opportunity is far more than simply bumping up vegetable production. There needs to be a strategy. If almost half of food gardening is being done in containers, do we have special vegetable containers for sale in all price ranges? Do we also have the seeds and new varieties of vegetables that perform well in containers? ‘Bush Crop’ cucumbers, ‘Patio Wonder’ peas, new ‘Honey Bear’ acorn squash and ‘Tumbler’ tomatoes – just to mention a few – will offer your customers great success with their food production.

Do you also have an expanded line of vegetables in large containers? We trellis pole beans, peas, climbing spinach and sweet potatoes for sale in one- and two-gallon containers. We also pot up potatoes, corn, swiss chard, lettuce and brassicas for fast starts and instant eating. Even carrots, beets, radishes and other root crops can be planted in one-gallon containers for dropping into larger containers or gardens for a fast start. One-gallon tomatoes and peppers are giving way to two- and three-gallon pots with ready-to-eat produce. There are no limits on the possibilities for success with vegetables.

Herbs are on the same upward scale and bigger is better here too. Parsley, chives, basil, sage, thyme and so many more have traditionally been sold in four-inch pots. Today’s consumer wants the one-gallon size that they can plant and pick the same day. We still need the four-inch pots, but about 20 to 25 per cent of our plants need to be in larger, more instant forms.

Culinary artists like new ideas, colours and flavours. Do you have purple, orange and green cauliflower or how about red and purple carrots and purple broccoli? How about a new tomato that makes perfect sun dried fruits? This is the stuff folks are now looking for in their quest for leading edge culinary enjoyment.

The one missing link in the new wave of food gardening is knowledge. We are now dealing with novice gardeners from all generations, particularly the Xs and Ys and the “millennials.” They need straight-forward, factual advice on how to have success. They also need to know the best varieties to grow, the best soils, the appropriate size of containers and tips on watering and fertilizing. Personal attention is, by far, the best way to build relationships, but simple handouts can make a huge contribution as well. Make them fun, factual and inspiring.

Another growing category of opportunity is perennial vegetables, from horseradish, wasabi and Jerusalem artichokes to rhubarb, asparagus and hops. There is great interest in growing these valuable and easy crops.

Everbearing strawberries and raspberries are a must-have. They’re easy in containers and produce the first year, which novice gardeners love. All small fruits have a place in today’s garden and unlike fruit trees, can do well in very small spaces. Most are self-fertile and can also be espaliered on walls or along fences to add both beauty and flavour. Larger fruiting sizes are especially in demand.

Food gardening is here to stay and will provide a great opportunity to differentiate your garden store from the boxes. It will also help you connect to a whole new generation of gardeners.

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