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Gardening 101: Does it pay off for newcomers?

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Bobby Srour

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In the spring of 2020, when the pandemic reached the U.S., a lot of people got interested in gardening and growing their own food. Now, a survey from the National Gardening Association finds that most of those pandemic gardeners have kept at it, and the number of first-time gardeners is rising.

Stephanie Berk is trying to help them get started. She’s a farmer who’s creating a community garden in Potomac, Maryland. Berk has just broken ground but has already leased out eight plots. Four other plots will be used for teaching local students. Extra produce or plants from the whole garden will be donated to food banks and other charities.

On a recent rainy day, Berk is teaching new gardeners the ropes.

“First of all, what do you really want to grow? What does your family eat?” she asks them.

Missy Sera wants to plant tomatoes, cucumbers and maybe lettuce. She’s a real estate agent who found out about Berk’s project and decided to give gardening a try, partly because she’s spending so much more recently at the grocery store — as much as $200 a week.

“It’s, like, almost doubled. It’s, yeah, it’s crazy,” she tells me.

Sera’s got company in other parts of the country. In Seattle, Ronak Gala plunked down about $250 in March for an indoor growing system. Gala is an accountant, so he knows how to calculate return on investment. At first, he didn’t expect to save any money with his growing system. It was just a hobby — and he was only going to grow herbs. But now he hopes to expand into tomatoes and peppers.

“I started seeing more news about inflation, and I thought, ‘OK, this system might actually have some more use than what I initially bought it for,’” he explained.

Gala is 34: a millennial. In a survey by Garden Center magazine, more than 300 independent garden centers reported that last year their customers started skewing younger.

“Sixty-five percent said they saw an increase in millennial customers,” said Kate Spirgen, the magazine’s editor. “And 44% saw an increase in Gen Z customers.”

In fact, Dave Whitinger, who heads the National Gardening Association, said almost 17 million Americans started gardening for the first time last year, and most of them were millennials or Gen Zers. Whitinger said that almost a third of new gardeners the association surveyed in January said they were growing their own food to save money.

He’s done some return-on-investment calculating on the cost of starting a basic garden.

“It’s going to cost you $88 to make this garden, and you’ll get $700 worth of food out of it,” Whitinger estimated.

But many variables can inflate that cost, he said. You may live in a part of the country with crummy soil, so you have to amend it to make it better. That takes compost. If you don’t have the time or space to make your own compost, you have to buy it.

Maybe you also need fertilizer. And tools. You might have to put up a deer fence to keep critters out. Ka-ching! Which brings us back to Missy Sera at the community garden in Maryland, where they’re divvying up the lots. Sera will pay $100 to lease her plot. That includes compost, fertilizer, tools and a deer fence. But Stephanie Berk warns her: Be realistic. You may not grow $100 worth of food your first year.

“If you’re expecting to get a million bushels of tomatoes and you don’t, then you might be disappointed,” Berk tells Sera.

Every new gardener has a learning curve, Berk says. When you’re first starting out, you may actually lose money. But over time — with the right soil, lots of sun and maybe some luck — you can grow so much food, you have to give it away.

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