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THE PEOPLE: Pots, Plots & the Good News of Spring

6 minute read

A capricious spring surprised and bestirred much of the nation last week. While New York City’s skyscrapers shimmered in 96° heat, the highest temperature ever recorded there in April, Floridians endured an unseemly chill and tornadoes skipped across Oklahoma and Texas. Heavy rains deluged Texas, Oklahoma and western Kansas—but too late to save the drought-stricken winter wheat crop, whose scraggly remains have been plowed under. Residents of heavily evacuated Minot, N. Dak., breathed easier as their earthen dams continued to hold against the crested Souris River, but 400,000 acres were flooded, dampening the area’s harvest hopes for another season. At week’s end most of America shifted to Daylight Saving Time, the better to enjoy, or rue, whatever nature has in store.

If the meteorological vagaries commanded unusual attention, part of the explanation may have been that in many other respects the news was exceptionally good. In a Voice of America discussion beamed overseas, such panelists as Columnist Charles Bartlett and Political Demographer Richard Scammon were startled by their unwonted optimism about America’s future. For the first time in a long time, the panelists later agreed, they had been talking about the country in terms that were almost totally positive. How come? asked the program’s moderator. Scammon replied that, though a great many problems remained to be solved and though there were still far too many sick and deprived people, the U.S. is in extremely good shape. To be sure, Scammon is known as a glandular optimist, but the daily headlines largely supported his thesis.

The economic recovery continued to accelerate as first-quarter statistics showed an annual increase of 7.5% in the gross national product. Almost as heartening, the annual inflation rate declined to 3.7%, and although it is expected to creep up to perhaps 6%, it is still a far cry from the 9.7% rate reached in 1974. Detroit was forecasting a 10.5 million car year, the second best ever. Profits were up, retail sales were high, and even the long depressed housing industry was on the rise again. Unemployment remained at an unacceptable 7.5%, but this was a promising drop from the 8.9% high of last May.

Nudging Nature. On another level, many Americans were working shorter hours and looking for something new and personally satisfying to do in their leisure hours. Astonishing numbers of them seemed to be finding it in an almost atavistic yearning to grub in the dirt, sow seeds, nudge nature with fertilizer, watch wondrous things grow, then literally taste the fruits—and vegetables—of their loving labors at their own tables. Home gardening of all kinds, but most especially for eating, is booming in the U.S. The growing zest for growing things got its biggest boost in 1974 from the recession, climbing food prices and the stay-at-home gasoline shortage. But the continuing splurge in backyard plots and apartment window boxes this spring proves that the back-to-the-soil trend is no mere fad. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that this summer, for the first time since the flourishing victory gardens of World War II, a majority of American households—some 37 million, or 51%—will be tending some kind of vegetable garden.

“America has never been a great gardening country,” says Gardening Author Derek Fell. “But now all that’s changing.” Declares William MacDowell, president of W. Atlee Burpee Co.: “People are getting frustrated with all the frivolities of life. They want something more basic.” Observed San Diego Garden Store Owner Joan Klindt: “You can’t live in concrete all your life. Every day I hear people saying things like ‘Oh, I don’t watch that TV program any more. I’m working out in the yard.’ ”

Suppliers cannot keep up with the demand. “I’ve been out of orange trees for two months, also lemons and kum-quats,” says Miami Nurseryman Mark Ancet. “It’s just gung-ho,” notes Al Muller, at a Wilmette, Ill., nursery. “We’re running out of Bibb lettuce, celery, carrots, and we can’t get new supplies.” In New England, the Finast supermarkets find 40-lb. bags of cow manure (at $1.99 a bag) selling at record rates.

The new greening of America takes many forms. Amid the hills surrounding San Francisco, homeowners often plant tomatoes, lettuce, celery, carrots, onions and radishes in wooden tubs on sun decks. Raspberry plants and apple trees for backyards are big sellers in Portland. During the hot summer, Miami area gardeners turn to black-eyed peas and watermelons. Dick and Hope McKim of Miami even converted their swimming pool into a garden, filling it with layers of rock and sand, then topsoil. Says Mrs. McKim: “Now instead of the pool costing us $50 a month to maintain, we eat out of it.”

Community garden projects, often subsidized with federal funds on state or city land, have more hopeful planters and renters than available plots. Low-income families are often given priority, since the savings on food bills from a 15-ft. by 25-ft. garden can reach $250 a year. Atlanta has 150 acres, divided into 20-ft. by 30-ft. plots, scattered in its metropolitan area in a program that will reach an estimated 8,000 people this year. In Louisville, one government-sponsored garden project leased 175 of its 250 plots in just two hours on opening day. For $20 a season, more luxurious Louisville sharecroppers get 40-ft. by 100-ft. lots and the comforts of telephones, electric outlets and portotoilets.

Instant Tomatoes. All this does not mean that Americans are no longer enthralled by gadgets and gimmickry. More than 20,000 Rotocrop “Accelerator” compost bins were sold last year at about $40 each, and sales are expected to more than double this year. The bin is merely a 3-ft.-high plastic cylinder, specially ventilated for turning garden and kitchen wastes quickly into compost. Students at the University of Miami enjoy almost instant tomatoes hydroponically grown by pouring liquid fertilizer into baskets filled with wood shavings outside their dorm windows. “Tomato rings”—wire-mesh cages about 4 ft. wide and 6 ft. high containing beds of grass clippings, table scraps and leaves—are popular for growing a variety of vegetables.

Such shortcuts do not seem to diminish the satisfactions. “There is tremendous excitement in putting seeds in the ground—little pieces of nothing in the earth—and seeing them grow,” declares Harold Field, a retired editor and enthusiastic gardener in New York’s Westchester County. “It defies description. It’s almost magical.” The rising interest in pots, plots and window boxes is, indeed, a healthy trend in a mechanized society. Millions of Americans work at jobs that rarely encompass more than a step in a production sequence or a repetition of services. And they work indoors, besides. For these millions, the meshing of one’s hand with nature’s rhythms and whimsies to produce a delicious melon or a crunchy celery stalk is proving to be a renewing experience.

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