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Gardening Blooms as One of Most Popular Outdoor Activities

June 06, 1992|From The Associated Press

Good for the body, good for the soul, gardening is one of America's mostpopular outdoor leisure activities.

Many Americans by far prefer to bring a peony to exquisite bloom or a golden summer squash to sweetness of flesh than to play golf, catch fish, or go camping.

In 1990, retail sales of lawn and garden materials amounted to more than $20 billion, says Bruce Butterfield, research director of the National Gardening Assn. "Six years ago, the figure was $14.2 billion. These sales are increasing 10% a year."

Economic uncertainties may play some role in the surge. Vern Grubinger, an agricultural extension agent in Brattleboro, Vt., thinks many people grow their own vegetables as a hedge against financial hardships. "A gardener can save a couple of hundred dollars in food costs that way," he says.

For whatever other reasons, gardening has grown in the nation's 93.3 million households because it has reached out to tap into the vast pool of baby-boomers, the generally well-educated and health-conscious men and women who were born in the two decades following World War II.

Ed Perlman of Washington, D.C., is of that generation. Skillful at growing plants in containers, he prepares such exotica as pelargonium topiaries, a type of geranium, for Christmas decorations.

It takes time, he says, and that is the way it must be: "The worth of a garden and a person as a gardener cannot be judged in a season or even two seasons. It takes years," Perlman explains.

Another gardener who has plenty of time is Sam John Passarella, a Tennessee prison inmate in his mid-40s who is not scheduled for release until 2013. "I don't even care that much about getting out as long as I can continue to work with flowers, especially roses," he says.

The concept of calming the beast in a person through gardening is not new in the United States and is even older in England.

It has long been known that being around plants can be of significant benefit to the physically and mentally disabled and to older persons and inner-city youngsters turned surly.

Gardeners in America show a rising interest in heritage plants and seeds.

Among the most fervent protectors of that heritage are Kent and Diane Whealy of Decorah, Iowa. Their business is saving the seeds of vegetables grown in the United States before hybridization was started by large commercial growers--before the ethylene-gassed market tomatoes put a grimace on the face of America.

Of the great number of vegetable varieties available in the United States at the turn of the century, more than 80% have been abandoned.

Even so, in places such as eastern Pennsylvania the tradition of gardening remains strong. Near Malvern, Pa., Joanna Reed, 75, maintains a 50-year-old country garden of flowers, shrubs and trees on a farm called Longview.

"So much happens on its own in this garden," says Reed, who may walk about 18 miles in a day tending her plants. "It's not an inanimate object. It's not like a painting even. When you stop painting and go back to it, it's right where you left it. But you go back to your garden and you find it's moved on, you know."

Many U.S. gardeners today are making a statement of environmental concern. Americans use 69 million pounds of pesticides on their gardens and in their homes each year. But the trend is to organic gardening and biodegradable materials.

Ann Lovejoy, a gardening writer, says that she never uses chemicals in her garden in Washington state. She explains, "If something is so sick that you need chemicals, throw it away. What sense does it make to poison something to grow something else?"

For the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have turned to it, gardening doesn't end with the coming of winter. There are catalogues to read, from which 8 million households placed orders in 1990.

Paul Hawken runs an expanding California company that sells gardening tools. He expects the rage to plant will continue with the aging of the baby-boomers.

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