Grow your own, farm to table, back to basics … call it what you will, the movement to produce food at home is here to stay. According to the National Gardening Association (NGA), food gardening in the U.S. is at its highest level in more than a decade. In a report published just a year ago (April 2014), the NGA stated that 35 percent of all households in the country—about 42 million of them—were said to be growing food at home, or in a community garden. That’s an increase of 17 percent in five years.

The report further states, “Young people, particularly Millennials (ages 18 to 34), are the fastest growing population segment of food gardeners. In 2008 there were 8 million millennial food gardeners. That figure rose to 13 million in 2013, an increase of 63 percent. Millennials also nearly doubled their spending on food gardening, from $632 million in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2013. … Additionally, there was a 29 percent increase in food gardening by people living in urban areas, up from 7 million in 2008 to 9 million in 2013. Two million more households also reported participating in community gardening in 2013 than 2008, a 200 percent increase in five years.”

The Garden Writers of America released the results of a survey conducted in 2014, the focus of which was “consumer summer gardening activities using edible plants,” and in which it’s reported that, “Among the 75 million gardening households that have a lawn, garden or grow plants in containers, this year [2014] more than two in five consumers (44 percent) said that they grew edible plants in the ground, while 15 percent used containers. Almost one-third (32 percent) grew edible plants both in the ground and in containers.” The survey forecast for 2015 indicated that 58 percent of consumers planned to grow edible plants.

Overdevest’s Footprints® Edibles program

If you’ve already got a healthy production program, is it logical to stretch a little and start growing starter veggies or fruit? Overdevest Nurseries in Bridgeton, New Jersey, had launched its eco-friendly Footprints® brand of ornamentals in 2008, and soon thereafter began researching the potential of an edibles line. Plants were selected and the company teamed with Jonathan Bardzik, author of the cookbook Simple Summer, A Recipe for Cooking and Entertaining with Ease, as the brand’s celebrity ambassador.

We asked owner Ed Overdevest for some comments on this experience:

American Nurseryman: The company is known for its ornamental shrubs and perennials; why did you expand your inventory to include edibles?

Ed Overdevest: We didn’t want to be left on the sidelines of what continues on as an enduring trend. At the same time, we didn’t want to jump in with the same approach as everyone else. We wanted to do it in a distinct way—by integrating our company’s longstanding approach to sustainability in a manner that presents a very authentic story to the new generation of gardeners— while still appealing to current gardeners.

American Nurseryman: When did you initiate your edibles program?

Ed Overdevest: Since this was uncharted territory for us, we wanted to take our time getting things right. So, the last three years have been spent learning our way on the production end and developing our marketing model for this latest addition to our existing Footprints® brand—which had come into being a few years earlier.

American Nurseryman: What were the first crops you produced? What plants are in your current inventory?

Ed Overdevest: Our early efforts focused mainly on herbs, which continues today. But rather than go with just the basics, we sought out unique and higher value varieties that would allow us to cover the added costs associated with growing edibles in a sustainable way. A good example of the extra cost is our 4.5-inch e-pot®, which is what biodegradable container. This adds around $.20 more to our packaging costs versus conventional plastic options. So, competing on a commodity level was not a feasible strategy for us.

American Nurseryman: Were changes in infrastructure required? What were the challenges?

Ed Overdevest: Our investment in sustainability goes back many years and many dollars ago. A good example is our water recycling system, which dates back 20-plus years when we were bringing container production to what was then a new farm for us. This has now become our main location and represents our best effort to create a state-of-the art facility. Ironically though, we felt obligated, for food safety considerations, to not use the chlorinated water from this system—out of an abundance of caution in avoiding the e-coli issue. We’re proud that our recycling reduces our source water usage by around two thirds, but we rely on independently piped well water for our edibles production. So much so, that when our well pump failed last year and we had to temporarily resort to recycled water as a back-up, we decided to stop shipping our limited release of edibles so as not to risk any health concerns. Not an easy decision, and no doubt an overreaction, but one we made for the sake of protecting consumers and protecting the integrity of the brand. Needless to say, we have redundant fresh water back-up for this season.

American Nurseryman: Please describe the original Footprints ® program, and how Footprints® Edibles was incorporated.

Ed Overdevest: Footprints® (as in “carbon footprint”) was created to put a brand “face” on all of our efforts over the years of trying to “do things right” from a conservation, environmental and company responsibility point of view. Prior to then, we had no thought of these efforts having any marketing value. In fact, the sheer volume of investment put us at a bit of a competitive disadvantage. But then, with the resurgence in awareness by the Millennials, we realized consumers might appreciate the way we conduct our business. What better way to communicate that message than with edibles, the key to the hearts of the “foodie” generation. Once that connection is established, we hope to extend that initial interest into other Footprints® plants, such as easy-to-succeed succulents, and then, perennials and shrubs.

American Nurseryman: Your nursery is certified by Veriflora®; please explain the significance of this certification.

Ed Overdevest: Every grower means well in saying they operate sustainably, but Veriflora® adds validity to that claim by virtue of their certification process, which sets a very high bar for quality, environment responsibility, employee relations and community support.

American Nurseryman: At present, your distribution is concentrated on the East Coast. Do you have plans to expand your reach?

Ed Overdevest: With this being promoted as the official “roll-out” year of our program, our trade show exhibits have drawn a lot of interest—including other growers from around the country. But, before we collaborate with like-minded nurseries to take this beyond our regional level, we need to prove that we can win over the “gate keepers” of our industry: local garden centers. By and large, they’re pretty traditional, you know. So, until they believe there is relevance to all they’re hearing with respect to sustainability, we have our work cut out for us.

American Nurseryman: Please explain your marketing program, which features Jonathan Bardzik. How was that program developed?

Ed Overdevest: For our official launch, we wanted to make our value proposition (as Charlie Hall puts it so well) as comprehensive as possible. By adding a great personality and published author like Jonathan as our celebrity chef, we are now able to weave a compelling story that brings emotion and entertainment into the purchase decision. The fact that Jonathan has such a great family garden center background and respected nursery industry affiliation adds credibility to our message of wanting to truly partner with garden centers to meet the challenge of our times—reaching out to young consumers. Besides all that, he happens to prepare some truly creative and delicious recipes. We just get to add the natural part.

Footprints Edibles are grown in the company’s biodegradable “e-pots,” ready for “pot and all” planting.Photo courtesy of Overdevest Nurseries / Footprints Edibles

American Nurseryman: How successful has Footprints® Edibles been for Overdevest Nurseries? Are there plans to expand?

Ed Overdevest: We’ve had a very encouraging initial reaction, but it’s early days for our program, so we’re not going to make any heady claims. And we’re in it for the long haul, because we truly believe that authentic stories like Footprints® Edibles will resonate with tomorrow’s, and today’s, gardeners—especially when it comes to the food they eat!