Fear mongering at the nursery



A pretty garden behind the Stone Cat Cafe in Hector, NY, where we just were.

You can call me a Pollyanna, an ostrich, or a cockeyed optimist, but please don’t call me a recession gardener. For months now, we’ve all been seeing headlines like this in the lifestyle pages of the newspaper: “Vegetable garden can yield savings with tighter budgets,” “Plant a vegetable garden and get your groceries from your back yard,” or “Vegetable Gardens Can Save Big Money.”

Though there’s some debate over how much cash a vegetable plot will save you, these exhortations somehow don’t seem quite so depressing as the pro-gardening rhetoric I saw in my local paper yesterday. In it we hear these sober thoughts from a local carpenter, “I was going to put rose bushes,” he said, pointing. “But this year I’m thinking peppers— hot peppers—some tomatoes, carrots.” It’s good to know that our local nurseries are doing well, at least in the seed aisles, but positioning food gardening as a measure of last resort and something that former ornamental growers are driven to out of desperation is a bit too much for me.

Not stopping there, the article also raises the specters of salmonella and pesticides, as well as quoting the same NGA and Burpee seed-buying surveys we’ve been hearing about for months (I’m always a bit leary of industry-conducted surveys). The joy of planting and tending is barely touched upon, and then there is the stark either/or equation between ornamental and food growing. It’s always been my impression that the two are best done together, for many reasons, including practical ones.

All this talk, including the dreary premise—planting recession gardens instead of flowers—has nothing to do with why I garden or why I suspect most people garden. Those who really don’t want to do their own digging will find ways to get cheaper food without growing it—and those who enjoy gardening will grow what makes them the happiest.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Oh, but I disagree; veggie gardening is often the “hook” that gets people into the joys of gardening in the first place! My husband and I started out in a community veggie garden 35 years ago when we were poor, in an apartment and in school. Today I am a committed and fanatic ornamental gardener, and it all started in that community garden where we had to haul our own water from one central source. One truly has to experience gardening first to appreciate it; those that don’t like it will go back to the stores.

  2. I agree that it is silly to put inject the apocolyptic tone into gardening articles. Every time I read one I just think about all those people who have run out and bought up all the ammunition (for real), in anticipation of either a government suspension of the Second Amendment or some sort of invasion / end of days scenario. People! Let’s take a deep breath, and remember that if at this stage we still have checking accounts after a real crisis, we won’t need to start living off the land.

  3. You said it best in the last sentence… “those who enjoy gardening will grow what makes them happiest”. I love to grow veggies, and try to get others to do so, if they have any inclination to garden at all, regardless of their life circumstances. I just want them to experience the joy of eating something they grew themselves.

  4. Amen! About time someone recognizes that vegetable gardening is as much of an art as real gardening… and a casual “Peppers for Roses” trade is a) not going to give you enough peppers for your money and b) pennywise and pound foolish. If your local carpenter were to pick the right rosebush, it may last until times are good again!

  5. For sure I love to grow some tomatoes, lettuce and a few herbs, but I do it because I use them and enjoy them. I would hope that the people who garden with any kind of plants do so because there is something satisfying about it, not because they suddenly think the sky is falling. I would also hope that people realize that the media prints what sells, not always what is accurate.

  6. I love to garden, but I hadn’t grown a real vegetable garden in years. For one thing, I found that when the vegetables are ripe is when you buy them really cheap at roadside stands. Last year, I noticed that they weren’t so cheap at the stands. And I wondered what pesticides some of these people might be using.
    I am concerned about the economy and my 401K. But putting 2 kids through college is what is really making me feel poor. That said, I’ve probably already spent more than Michelle Obama on seeds and a fence….

  7. News stories selling what? Fear and anxiety? Yep. I think I’m about to be a part of that.

    I’m sure we’ve all grown veggies for several years. How did the garden become the front line for our societal ills? Thanks a lot media for attaching roses and peppers and all their joys to societal breakdown and depression economics.

    The garden can’t save us from the COMING GLOBAL SUPERWAR, or 2012 ARMEGGEDON or whatever millenial mega-fear is rolling around.

    But it can give us some peace of mind, day to day, that things just may be alright.

  8. Whoever says that they can save money by growing their own vegetables has not bought garden soil lately!
    I started growing peppers because I wanted what I could not find at the grocery store and now I am so hooked on gardening in general that my wife is probably ready to leave me.
    I think that, like in many other activities, we acquire more sophistication as we go along. Like I said, I started with peppers and this year I planted Penstemons and Hollyhocks; who knew?!

  9. To paraphrase…grow what makes you happy…vegetables, trees, roses, whatever–just grow something. You’ll feel better about the economy no matter what’s in your garden.

  10. I don’t know anyone who gardens out of fear. It’s a ridiculous way of thinking about the pleasures of gardening. Even those who grow enough produce to really make a difference in the budget likely do so with a light heart.

    I don’t think I’m alone in taking equal delight in well-grown tomatoes and the first buds on my tree peony. Well, OK, I guess I don’t squeal and run into the house with veggie news. I did when I saw those peony buds, though!

  11. There are many reasons to grow vegetables, and money is definitely one of the them.

    But so are beauty and happiness.

    You’re just reacting to bad writing, Elizabeth. I’d bet none of those reporters are real gardeners. They have no idea what they’re talking about.

  12. Saving money with a veggie garden? Have you looked at the price of seeds, lumber for the raised beds which seem to be de rigeur this year, stakes and twine and kelp juice and cages for the tomatoes and hoes and dibbles and shovels and compost and chickenpoop and …….?

    I don’t dare cost out the price of my vegetables. All I know is that I enjoy growing them (or, rather, trying to grow them), and that nothing equals the pleasure of harvesting my own herbs or salad or tomatoes.

  13. I really can’t elaborate on all the previous comments. I grow, both flowers and veggies because it makes me happy to do so, and the bonus from the veggie garden, is all the delicious produce.

  14. Oh for heavens sake! I’m with Bev. We all do need to take a deep breath. Gardening, whether for ornamentals or vegetables, is about the deep satisfaction that come from working the soil, seeing plants grow and enjoying the fruits of your labors.

    Fear mongering in the media shows a distinct lack of imagination and creativity. There are better ways to sell the story.

  15. I think the recent media coverage of the ‘recession garden’ sells because it provides a sense of control through action. It’s a reminder that our grandparents and great grandparents rallied through similar economic times. The victory garden is a notion full of romantic imagery, but one that has real merit once you push past the ideology.

    So I’m thankful for the recent media coverage of vegetable gardens – even if it is often overdone and mixed with a “sky is falling” mentality. I started a vegetable garden this year and found something I really love. I didn’t go into it with unrealistic expectations and I have no intention of stopping when times get financially easier. The media coverage was the push I needed to get started. I think it might be like that for other folks who have a hidden gardener within.

  16. I think many here are under-estimating the money-saving abilities of their garden. My parents raised nine kids by supplementing Dad’s blue-collar pay with produce from a huge garden. How much did it save ? I can’t give you a dollar figure, but it was enough to put all of us through 8 years of private school. Granted, that was without expensive raised beds, sprinkler systems, & bagged compost.

    That said, I garden not because I know what it saves me ( I have refused my accountant-husband’s offer to cost it out ), but because I can’t NOT garden.

  17. There is a certain dire view about gardening to make sure there is food on the table. I just hope that some of the people who start out with this grim approach are surprised to find pleasure in the labor and delight in the delicious results.

  18. Rosella, I save at least $3000 a year on my food bill with my vegetable garden.

    I think raised beds are ugly as sin, so I don’t do them. I get my soil amendments for free, from a neighbor with an alpaca farm who tractors the old bedding down the hill to me. If you don’t have such a neighbor, ground-up fall leaves are excellent in a vegetable garden. Christopher C is having a great time using arborist’s wood chips. Also free. Check out a horse barn near you–that stuff is free, too.

    And I don’t buy my seeds from Johnny’s of Maine any more, ever since the year that I had a $120 sticker shock. Have a look at Fedco–a steal!

  19. No reason a garden can’t be pretty and feed you, too. With fruit trees, ornamental edibles, great looking vegetable varieties, etc. it’s easy to do both. I think the fear element is definitely overdone, though, and people are really just buying into having a cheap hobby that also brings great benefits in health and well being, as well as making the yard “useful” instead of just another wasted green lawn expanse.

  20. I guess I’m backwards, since I just bought my first rosebush this year. It will take up space usually dedicated to tomatoes or peppers.

    But maybe a recession is a good time to use ornamental gardening to add value to your home if you’re planning on selling soon. That’s my excuse, and rose-hip jelly.

  21. Thanks, Michele! I don’t have raised beds, I do use ground-up leaves plus the leaf mulch which my county delivers for a really nominal charge, I have all the tools I need, and a couple of bags of chickenpoop plus some liquid kelp are about all I have purchased in the way of stuff for the veggies this year, but people just beginning to garden do have to spend at least some money to get started and that reduces the savings. I wish I had an alpaca farm nearby! Not only for the used bedding, but for the odds and ends of fleece which are not saleable, but I’m definitely an urban gardener!

    I do save by growing vegetables and herbs, and I will check out a Fedco when I find one nearby. Thanks for the tip! And now, gotta go put the replacement zucchini in the ground. The original seeds didn’t come up, probably because of rain/cold temperatures.

  22. I grow veggies so I can eat lunch without having to leave the garden. //I’m hoping that the greatest attribute of this recession will be the way it has people considering the economy as a dependent of the environment.// People will get into gardening for all sorts of goofy reasons but the ones they stay for are the ones we know and love.

  23. I agree with Bev, too. Growing vegetables can save money, but it can also acquaint kids with where their food really comes from. To me, that’s worth a lot more. If an article on recession gardens gets a few folks started, then they might so enjoy the process that they’ll plant some roses, too.

    If you don’t poison those roses, you can eat them as well. Years ago I won blue ribbons for my rose petal jelly. I used the mint jelly recipe that came with the pectin jar, but left out the green food coloring. The color and taste of that pink beach rose jelly was amazing.

  24. Ginny beat me to it. Frankly, if my young’un manages to eat vegetables that he planted, it’s worth the cost of the self watering planters and even the special porch we built to put them on.

    And they’ll still be there for future harvests, so I can spread that expense over time.

    I’ve been herb gardening for years and you can’t beat the spontenaity of having edibles at your doorstep.

    But please continue to plant flowers. The bees, birds and butterflies need them.

  25. But yet many fall prey to the apocolyptic global warming, climate change stories pervading every newscast for the last 15 years.

    And many Ranters rant about the need for everyone to grow their own food or buy local.

    Ah, once again someone else’s end does not justify your means.

    “You mean you’re growing food because you can’t afford roses this year ? Well it’s all fine in my world that you are growing food but your rationale is sooo wrong.”

    Blah blah blah!!!!!

    The TROLL

  26. I have a real vegetable garden now because it was there, being very under utilized. In essense I am a sharecropper. All I have really done is mulch it and plant. Totally on the cheap. It was and still is surrounded by a wildflower meadow and planted flower beds, though the process of expansion for a strawberry bed will shrink the wildflower meadow part.

    In Hawaii I had avocado, oranges, papaya and all kinds of herbs. If you count the bird poop hot peppers and wild cherry tomatoes, I guess I grew vegetables too.

    For a long time real gardener with enough land, this is not an either/or ornamentals or edibles, good times/apocalypse choice. They are both in the garden. It just is.

    Do I feel good about my new larger, dedicated to vegetables garden. Yes and part of that is because times are scary. I know people lived and survived in these hills without all the comforts we take for granted. It can be done if necessary. Not a pretty picture though for us modern folk.

  27. I don’t have a vegetable garden, except for a few greens and some herbs. I live in a climate where it’s often over 100 degrees for days at a time. Luckily I have shade trees, and that means I don’t have enough sun for vegies. And the farmer’s market keeps me supplied with far more vegies than I could ever grow myself.

    Also I think the whole victory garden thing is part of the “surviving the recession” media stories–most of which involve nibbling (sorry) round the edges of people’s major expenses–housing, health care and transportation. And those, of course, are expenses that are largely fixed, recession or no.

  28. The only good thing about the gloom-and-doom reporting is that more helpful money-saving tips are being shown in mainstream media. My family has been going through a financial hardship for several years now, and it has become much easier to find helpful information now that many other people in the country are suffering with me :-).

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