LAWN AND GARDEN The grass is green, and so is industry
Increasingly, people are spiffing up yards with grills, decks and landscaping.
Michael Hackley sells gas grills from his base in Baton Rouge, La., a town you might think the buckle in the Barbecue Belt. But he ships most of his high-end grills to major East Coast metropolitan areas, from Washington to New York.
"I thought we would get most of our orders from the South," he said. "Not even close."
Others in the lawn and garden business are not as shocked. As houses grow in size and their building lots shrink, Americans in even the coldest climates are rethinking their relationship with the yard, converting these smaller -- let's call them cozier -- spaces into one more room to spin a cocoon.
In addition to paying $2,000 or more for grills, consumers are spending thousands on decks, patios, furniture, fences and plants. Most of the economy may be in a malaise, but the aptly named green industry is booming.
Lawn and garden sales at retailers jumped from an estimated $26.6 billion in 1997 to $39.6 billion last year, according to a recent Harris Interactive poll conducted for the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt.
What's spurring boom
Much of this activity is connected to the buoyant housing and mortgage markets, and to the post-9/11 cocooning phenomenon, but the numbers suggest a fundamental shift in how we view and use the yard, said Robert Dolibois, executive vice president of the Washington-based American Nursery and Landscape Association.
After spending five figures on the trophy kitchen, he says, people are no longer willing to step out onto a 9-by-12 concrete patio overlooking a weedy lawn. "You have got the water feature, the lighting," he said. "I suspect a lot of what you see is tied to lifestyle [cable] programs."
Peter Murray, owner of Hidden Lane Landscaping in suburban Washington, said another factor is the architecture of new homes, where large kitchens and family rooms are pushed to the backs of houses and then given glass walls to the outdoors.
"So the view becomes more important; patio spaces have become bigger, and people seem to be entertaining a lot more in the garden and are looking not just for a patio or deck but a combination of the two, and really creating a sense of a garden room around them," he said.
Hackley, who claims 15,000 to 16,000 daily hits on his site (www.bbqguys.com), said his most expensive grills are his most popular, a complete reversal of the situation five years ago.
A large, top-of-the-line stainless-steel grill with extras such as lights and rotisserie can cost almost $10,000, as much as the dearest commercial-grade kitchen ranges. His store is called the Grill Store & amp; More.
Do fence me in
Of course, if you are moving your kitchen and dining areas (even showers) outdoors, you want to screen yourself from the next-door neighbor who's doing the same. Forget that symbol of American neighborliness, the communal lawn: With cheek-by-jowl existence comes a more European craving for privacy.
Home Depot touts white vinyl privacy fencing in its glossy magazine Style Ideas, at $52 a panel. But fences grow only so high.
Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for Monrovia, one of the largest producers of container plants for garden centers, says although once low-growing junipers were the No. 1 plant (to cover areas where grass wouldn't grow), today the company's nurseries in California, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon are churning out narrow evergreens.
Fast-growing but all-consuming Leyland cypresses remain popular, but he said the public is looking for more manageable plants that still provide screening.
A favorite is Bright 'N Tight, a tall, upright, evergreen cherry laurel that grows 8 feet high.
Another recent poll supports a parallel trend: Increasingly, baby boomers with appreciating assets and depreciating backs are hiring others to maintain the landscape, from lawn mowing to weed-killing to tree and shrub pruning.
According to Dolibois' association, the money consumers spent on professional landscape installation tripled between 1997 and 2002, from $3.6 billion to $11.2 billion. In the same period, the percentage of households using lawn and landscape maintenance services rose from 14 percent to 18 percent, and the amount spent for grass clipping, mulch spreading and the like climbed from $7.6 billion to $10.7 billion.