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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to soaring food prices. Now, some people are using their green thumbs to save some green. Matt Schaefer Powell of member station WUOT reports.

MATT SCHAEFER POWELL: Ann Parks Johnson's flower beds look a little different this year. They don't have many of flowers in them.

Ms. ANN PARKS JOHNSON (Gardner): I've got broccoli and kohlrabi and I just put the tomatoes in. And then I have garlic.

POWELL: The retired schoolteacher from Oak Ridge, Tennessee does love flowers, but the decision to fill her flowerbeds with vegetables was an economic one.

Ms. JOHNSON: We were heading into, let's call it a recession. And I decided that I probably need to raise more vegetables.

POWELL: Ann Parks Johnson isn't alone. The National Gardening Association says Americans spent $1.4 billion on vegetable gardens last year. That's an increase of almost 25 percent from 2006. And research from the Garden Writers Association shows that trend will continue this year.

Richard Minors owns the Pine Tree Garden Seed Company, a national seed distributor based in Maine.

Mr. RICHARD MINORS (Owner, Pine Tree Garden Seed Company): We've seen about a - like a 20 percent increase. By the end of the year we could be talking about an extra quarter million dollars.

POWELL: Minors has sold seeds for almost three decades, and it no longer surprises him to see vegetable seed sales go up during poor economic times.

Mr. MINORS: Over these 29 years, I would say they have always been inversely related. People's expectations of the economy - when they're looking grimmer, our sales tend to get better.

POWELL: Now, forecasting economic trends is a lot more complicated than just looking into our backyard gardens. Economists use hundreds of indicators. And a spike in vegetable gardening may not be related to the economy at all. But the last time Americans showed so much interest in planting vegetables was 2001, during the last recession.

Mr. MATT MURRAY (University of Tennessee): That may not be a very bad indicator of what the economy may do.

POWELL: That's Matt Murray, an economist with the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.

Mr. MURRAY: If you look at the reality of where the economy is in an economic downturn, people are losing their jobs, people are having their hours curtailed, their income is down. From just an income prospective, there is a constraint on the budget and there is an incentive for people to do some homegrown gardening.

POWELL: Back at her Oak Ridge, Tennessee home, Ann Parks Johnson says she'll get back to planting more flowers in due time. This year she figures she'll save about $1,500 by planting her own vegetables. But aside from the money, she says she loves the taste, the safety and the excuse to go play outside.

Ms. JOHNSON: It's like digging in the sand pile, you know, for kids, and to watch things grow. Just really rewarding.

POWELL: So while economic forecasters might be wise to watch her garden, Ann Parks Johnson will be watching forecasters of a different kind.

Unidentified Man: Look at all the rain off to our west moving through Middleton. And see, if you're traveling 40 westbound you'll get into some rain as you get closer to Nashville.

POWELL: For NPR News, I'm Matt Schaefer Powel in Knoxville.

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