When the economy began its steep decline in 2008, almost everything related to housing hit the skids, including the lawn and garden industry. But one sector escaped the pinch: food gardening.
In fact, food gardening sales nationwide have spiked 20 percent since then, and they've stayed there. While many households started growing food to be more budget-conscious, some are deciding vegetables and fruits can be beautiful, too.
In the extreme, edible landscaping or foodscaping can even mean replacing grass with something edible. For Jeremy Lekich of Nashville Foodscapes, the world is already his salad bar.
"It's called lambsquarter," he says, chomping into what laymen would consider a garden-variety weed. "Most people know it. It grows everywhere in disturbed soils, and it's actually the wild ancestor of quinoa."
Lekich and his foodscaping company specialize in unconventional projects, like planting an entire yard in buckwheat, a nutrient-packed grain that's experienced a renaissance. People make hearty, nutty-tasting pancakes and noodles with the flour.
That's what Nashville yoga instructor James Alvarez wanted. His mother, however, is not a fan of her son's knee-high lawn.
"She's like, 'You get that Bermuda grass and you blend in,'" he says, laughing.
Edible landscaping isn't for everyone. But close to a third of American households now do some kind of food gardening, even if they're not willing to sacrifice their entire lawn. And some folks are turning to professionals to plant their food.
"Those who can afford to hire a landscape contractor and have the truck and crew, they're seeing it as being a cool thing to do," says Bruce Butterfield, researcher for the National Gardening Association.
Even nursing homes and hotels have been asking their landscapers to mix in more edible greens. One of the nation's largest landscaping companies, The Brickman Group, reports an uptick in request for herbs and vegetables.
For single-family homes, practical planting usually increases during a recession, Butterfield says. It's significant, though, that the millions who've gotten into food gardening don't appear to be getting out. That's what historically happens when the economy begins to come back.
"I think it's fundamentally different this time," Butterfield says. It's gotten trendy to grow your own food, he says.
Amy Pierce is a busy mother who runs a public relations firm in Nashville. She's convinced that if she's going to pay for plants, they might as well make a meal.
"That whole notion that I could have a raspberry bush alongside blueberry bushes, and I could make a fruit salad out of my backyard was just very novel and very new to me," she says. "It's almost embarrassing to admit it."
That's just what she planted, and then she went back for seconds, asking Lekich to return to plant even more fruit trees in her yard.
Lekich says he lives for such "ah-ha" moments. He's got big plans for edible landscaping, like using it to combat food deserts in low-income areas, where it's tough just to find fresh produce to buy. But so far, his clients have been people of means.
"Really it's been something that I've thought a lot about," he says. "When I first started, I said we're going to work on a sliding scale, and we do."
But Lekich says his foodscaping business still has some growing to do before he can afford to help those who could really use it.
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