bc-090422-west-coast-seeds-2

West Coast Seeds owner Jeanette McCall says her sales have nearly tripled this year. ((CBC))

Several B.C. seed and plant retailers say business is blooming this year, and the recession, rising food prices and star power may be feeding British Columbians' growing enthusiasm for gardening.

West Coast Seeds owner Jeanette McCall told CBC News she had expected a busy year at the Delta facility, shipping vegetable and flower seeds to customers, but not this busy.

Stocks of packaged seeds that were supposed to last all season were running out before March.

"Our February orders were close to three times the amount that they were the previous February," she said. "This was certainly a surprise to everyone."

The GardenWorks chain in Burnaby also reported they are seeing a "sizable increase" in seed sales this year, and strong sales of fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, strawberries and lettuce.

Heritage seeds a hit

And it is not just the ordinary varieties that are selling. Staff at the Van Dusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver reported attendance at their annual "Seedy Saturday" event in February, where growers sell heritage seeds, hit 1,500, about double the number of people in past years.

bc-090422-west-coast-seeds

West Coast Seeds advises novice gardeners to start out with easy crops such as beets, carrots and lettuce. ((CBC))

The retailers say they suspect the double whammy of the recession and rising food prices is behind the sudden interest in homegrown food. The price of fresh vegetables went up 26 per cent last year, Statistics Canada reported recently.

"There's been so much turmoil ... this uncertainty all the way around the world," said McCall. "And the knowledge of gardening and the idea that you could learn to grow your own food is immensely empowering."

The Obama factor

"I would say the major reason people are jumping into this is it makes people feel better," said Michael Levenston, executive director of the group City Farmer, a Vancouver organization that has been encouraging urban agriculture for 31 years.

Interest in local and homegrown food was rising before the economic downturn, according to Levenston, but he suspects political star power has helped the trend take root lately.

Last month in Washington D.C., Michelle Obama put in the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden in the Second World War, he said. Closer to home, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson plans to take David Suzuki's advice and dig up the lawn of city hall for a community garden this spring.

"If the president of the United States and his wife have a garden, if the mayor of Vancouver has a garden at city hall, then everybody's reading about it. It's no longer a background story, it's a major story," he said.

Another factor might also be the increasing popularity of eating locally produced food, inspired by Vancouver authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who wrote the influential book, The 100-Mile Diet, about their experiences eating only locally grown food for an entire year.

At West Coast Seeds, McCall said it appears many of her new customers are younger people who are growing food for the first time.

"Many people have never had the experience of growing any vegetables at all … never tried it before. But this is the year they certainly decided to," she said.

McCall recommends novice gardeners start small and not try to grow all their food the first year. Plant what you like to eat, and focus on easy choices such as beets, carrots and lettuce, she said.