For leisure on a budget, home gardening blooms

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Eric and Chris Fenmore of Corona del Mar, Calif., offer stylish outdoor furniture from their company, Front Porch Creations.

CHICAGO - Homeowners love their yards. They plant gardens, create cozy areas for entertaining, and install decorative elements that they're as happy to look at from the kitchen window as they are from their chaise longue.

Americans are expected to continue this love affair with the world outside their door - and perhaps linger longer there as they plan to spend their summer vacations at home.

About 94 percent of residential-landscape architects polled by the American Society of Landscape Architects earlier this year said that outdoor living spaces, including cooking and entertaining areas, would be popular in 2010. That said, improvements are expected to have few frills as homeowners stick to the basics in this cool economy.

"Homeowners want to create a sense of place for their family, friends and neighbors to enjoy outside, but an uncertain economy means many will dial back some of the extra features we've seen in past years," Nancy Somerville, executive vice president for the group, said in a news release.

Some of the most popular features this year: outdoor seating and dining areas, including benches and seat-walls or weatherized outdoor furniture, as well as fire pits and fireplaces, the classic outdoor grill, and outdoor counter space, according to the survey results. More lavish outdoor kitchen appliances, including refrigerators and sinks, are expected to be less popular, as are stereo systems and outdoor heaters.

Survey results found a growing interest in low-maintenance landscapes and native plants. There's also a continued resurgence of the home garden.

At Home Depot, sales of seed packets for vegetable gardens were up more than 50 percent in 2009, compared with 2008, said Jean Niemi, spokeswoman for the company. Last year's popularity has prompted the company to increase the types of edible-plant seed packets offered at the stores by 25 percent this year, she said. The stores are also planning to offer workshops on how to plant and maintain a garden.

While consumers may be planting more as a way to have fresher produce or so they can know where their food is coming from, there's also an economic driver: According to the National Gardening Association, a well-maintained food garden yields an average $500 return, considering a typical investment and the market prices of produce.

 

 

The interest in spending time outside is likely to beget more products designed for indoor/outdoor use in the near future, according to Rob Tannen and Mathieu Turpault of Bresslergroup, a product-development firm. The two gave a presentation on the topic at the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago this week.

One of the products they imagined: a tray container system that people could take into the garden to collect fruits and vegetables, adapt to fit the sink for cleaning the produce, and slide into a refrigerator as you would a crisper drawer. Another concept was a grill with seating built around it, allowing cooks to entertain friends as they work.

Technology will likely play a larger role outdoors, too, Tannen said. It's not that far-fetched to imagine a shed with solar roofing panels that allow you to charge pieces of large lawn equipment as easily as you might dock your Dustbuster inside the house. Or using iPod apps in the garden to learn how to best take care of a plant, he said.

Already, technology has entered some gardens. EasyBloom, a product that hit the market in 2008, is a sensor that you stick in the ground to collect information about the soil. You then connect it to a computer via a USB port, where collected information is analyzed to help determine which plants will thrive in that area. The tool also can diagnose problems with an existing plant. It costs about $40 and is sold online.

"People get bummed out when a plant is not doing well," said Matt Glenn, chief executive of PlantSense, the company that sells EasyBloom. "If you have a rose bush ... put the sensor next to the rose bush, and the sensor will look at the world the way the rose does."