Archive for Thursday, April 3, 2008

Gardening industry targets baby boomers, their wallets

April 3, 2008

Long ago, in a much simpler time, growing vegetables was a straightforward matter. When our grandparents were wielding the hoe, they worked the soil, planted their seeds and let nature take its course.

Back then, a key motivation for putting in a garden was the cost savings a family would enjoy with every harvest throughout the summer. The U.S. government recognized the economic efficiency of the home garden during World War II and encouraged American families to grow their own veggies, freeing up farming and industry to support the war effort.

Through Victory Gardens, the weapon that would defeat enemies to the east and west was the home-grown cabbage. This strategy relied on low-cost inputs into the chain of production: soil a family already owned or rented, free labor, basic tools, cheap seed and conservative watering.

That was then. Today, vegetable gardening is, for most Americans, a hobby, not a necessity. And hobbyists like props and gadgets - the flashier the better. After all, the neighbors might peer over the fence at any moment.

The fact that aging boomers are embracing gardening in great numbers, viewing it as a charming way to spend their golden years and their 401(k)'s, is having a predictable impact on marketing. The National Gardening Association reports that people age 45 and older now account for 64 percent of the retail gardening market. The impact of this changing gardening demographic becomes clearer every time I wander around garden supply stores, leaf through catalogs or troll around the Internet.

The device that claims to be labor-saving is the name of the game. Special kneelers and stools, which spare the knees and other joints during planting and weeding, are fashionable. Garden implements now come in a variety of designs that are marketed for their ergonomics and ease of use. Upscale wheelbarrows and garden carts are touted as being easier on the back.

Even the basic garden tools have gone pricey. The $50 hoe is now considered a bargain in the boutique marketplace for gardening. A new gardener starting a tool collection from scratch might think that an investment of several hundred dollars was necessary to turn some dirt and keep the weeds down.

Then there are drip irrigation systems, which can run into the hundreds of dollars, and plastic and paper mulches that marketers say are necessary for increasing crop yields and keeping weeding to a minimum. These mulches, cut from a roll, can cost more than 50 cents a foot, plus shipping.

When we remember that growing vegetables in a home garden is about as basic as agriculture can get, buying this stuff seems a little like putting racing wheels on a Dodge Neon.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I have from time to time taken the bait. I test drove the Mantis Tiller for the better part of a year and sent it back for a full refund. I also have bought my share of floating row covers, Wall o' Waters plant insulators and special tools, none of which really did anything for my garden. That's the point. I look at my own track record and wish I had that money back in my pocket.

That said, if I were to win an NCAA basketball pool this year, I do have a short shopping list. Of course, this is hypothetical and should not be considered a public admission of law-breaking or of a moral failing that would lead me to pursue ill-gotten gain.

But if I were to suddenly find myself with unexpected cash on hand, I have my eye on Black & Decker's 18-volt rechargeable garden cultivator. It retails for $99.99. If I were to win a really big pool, I might even spring for a 400,000 BTU backpack-style flame weeder, the better to zap unwanted vegetation into oblivion. That would cost me about $320 plus shipping, and boy would it impress the neighbors.

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