DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's planting season, at least for those growing things like summer squash, beans and cherry tomatoes. And we're seeing a change. Rather than buy already developed seedlings, which are more expensive, many gardeners are buying seed packets. It's a sign they want to start their gardens from scratch. And seed companies say they've seen an increase in orders since the economic downturn.
Reporter Sasa Woodruff reports that it's easy to read the directions on these seed envelopes, the hard part is following them.
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SASA WOODRUFF, BYLINE: Rectangular dirt beds of chard and kale sit along side trees filled with immature fruit, in the community garden off busy Venice Boulevard in West Los Angeles. In the middle of the garden is a classroom. And that's where Mollie Wine sits with a handful of students learning how to coax a seed into a full-grown plant. A black thumb has plagued her for a long time.
MOLLIE WINE: I've been killing tomatoes, herbs - I kill it all. This is my first time actually learning how to do it right.
WOODRUFF: At the front of the classroom, master gardener, Nancy Mills stands shaking a packet of radish seeds.
NANCY MILLS: We hear seeds. Hear them?
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MILLS: But what do we know about seeds? And what do we do when we buy the packet?
WOODRUFF: Now, this may seem obvious, but Mills tells her students reading and following the instructions is key. People often get seduced by images of voluptuous tomatoes or girthy eggplants. But Mills says they forget to space and water according to the directions. Too much bright sun can shrivel the fledgling plant, but over-watering does the exact same thing.
MILLS: That means once you put the seed in the soil, it's four-to ten days before you will see the first two leaves.
WOODRUFF: Seeds are finicky creatures but they have a charm that commercially grown plants just can't produce. Also in the classroom is 27-year-old Ben Adlin. He's inspired by rarer vegetables gardeners can only find in seed catalogs.
BEN ADLIN: There's more than one type of cucumber, which is something that I feel like I've only learned since trying to buy seeds and not just going to the supermarket.
WOODRUFF: Some of those less, common varieties: German Schmorgurken, Indian yellow and Japanese climbing. Adlin has also acquired a taste for rarer bean varieties like Good Mother Stallard and Rio Zape.
ADLIN: The more boutiquey types of beans are going to set you back like 14.99 a pound at some crazy, you know, health food store. Whereas, like, you buy bean, you put it in the ground, it's kind of fun to kind of watch this dinosaur crawl out of the Earth.
WOODRUFF: A seed packet usually costs a couple dollars and yields dozens of plants. By contrast, a couple dollars gets you only one seedling. So there's an economic appeal in addition to the culinary allure. Renee Shepherd has been selling seeds through catalogs and online for more than a quarter of a century. When she started, her business focused on flowers, now vegetables make up a bigger part.
RENE SHEPHERD: I have seen in the last few years, particularly since the beginning of the Great Recession, a tremendous change in the kinds of seed we sell. In fact, we sell, 30 percent more vegetables than we did, say, five years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Doesn't it smell wonderful? The loam, feel the loam. It also depends on which...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's so soft.
WOODRUFF: Back in the community garden, students are planting radish, chard and bean seed inside a cutup milk carton. They water the soil. And even Mollie Wine with her black thumb is optimistic.
WINE: I have high hopes for this garden. Actually paying attention makes a big difference.
WOODRUFF: With a little time and patience, those seeds will take root.
For NPR News, I'm Sasa Woodruff.
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