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October 2, 2009

Gardening with Gen Y..or not?


 Photo credit: Flickr/englishsnow

Gardening and newspapers have one thing in common.

How do we reach the next generation, the under-35-year-olds we need to survive into the future?

They hype about this group, Gen Y, is this:

    • They aren't interested in gardening and outdoor life.
    • They are too busy playing video games and hanging out together.
    • And they lack the work ethic you need to sustain a garden.

Kelly Norris, a member of that generation and a member of a gardening family business, tried to convince a skeptical audience at the recent Garden Writers Association convention that not only is Gen Y ready to garden, gardening better get ready for Gen Y.

After all, there are 70 million people born betwen 1977 and 2000 -- more than the number of Baby Boomers -- and most of them are college age now. By 2014, they will be 47 percent of the workforce.

The gardening industry saw booms in perennial sales in 1982-85 and 1993-97. Baby Boomers were taking an interest in gardening in waves, and we can expect more such waves.

Norris makes the very good point that we shouldn't be trying to sell Gen Y on plants and pots. We should sell them on the joy of gardening. When they get it, they will buy the plants and pots.

"We need to spread the word about how great gardening is," he said. "We need to sell gardening, not products. We need to put value in what we do."

The other thing about Gen Y? This is a generation which likes mentors, and this gives us, the older generation of gardeners, a chance to introduce them to gardening.

This is how we sell it, he said.

  • Growing your own food is cool!
  • Gardening is a way to connect with people.
  • It is hard to screw up a garden, and it is easy to fix.
  • Appeal to their sense of competition -- do you have the best garden in the neighborhood?
  • Gardening can add value to your home, which is your most important investment.
  • And, get this, you are SAVING THE PLANET.

He was an enthusiastic speaker and he made a fascinating case, but I am not completely convinced we can get the next generation to repeat what we have done -- in gardening or anything else.

Most of us came into gardening later in life. We might have to wait a couple of decades before Gen Y, which has so many more demands on their lives, has time to do this.

But, hey, I am in the newspaper business. I have my own troubles.

Posted by Susan Reimer at 7:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Gen Y


The hype isn't always true, though the generalization does fit more often than not. I'm 27, married, and own a lovely home in Harford County. I'm absolutely fascinated by plants in all shapes and sizes, though I enjoy dwarf conifers and japanese maples the most. I always try to advocate gardening's many benefits to my friends, many of whom have recently bought homes throughout Maryland, and most have been quite receptive (two of my old beer drinking room mates from college even read this blog).

Get out! I have the most wonderful fan base!!!! --Susan

First off, I hate these sweeping generalizations about generations. We have so many more demands in life and less time to do stuff but no work ethic?

I'm 25. Kelly Norris is correct.

What needs to happen, though, is an emphasis on small-scale gardening, or even container gardening as many Gen Y don't have a whole lotta backyard, if we even have a balcony.

Kelly Norris forgot one point: more specifically than "saving the planet," the emphasis on getting back to better, unprocessed, pesticide-free food that isn't crazy expensive is another major driver of recent gardening. We want to eat better and save the planet, but we can't afford $6/lb spinach.

You are right, SH. I think good food will be the driving force for the next generation of gardeners, who will discover flowers at their leisure.

Don't believe the hype. (Whose hype is this, by the way? Kelly's? Yours? Those broad statements don't seem rooted in fact or research, as best I can tell. Why are video games and hanging out lumped together? Are we talking about 15-year-olds or 30-year-olds? There's a big difference in few-year increments inside the under-35 group.)

I seem to recall you have at least one Gen Y-er who writes a weekly post for you about her lovely container vegetable garden, and young people are taking to gardening in droves, for many of the reasons SH mentions. It's already happening.

I'm not quite clear on who says Gen Y-ers aren't into gardening (and would rather be playing video games?), but they're clearly wrong.

There are plenty of the younger generation who are into gardening -- three of whom have posted on this blog.

Sure, many young people may not have homes to put down roots, so to speak, but that hasn't stopped people from getting plots in community gardens (as Carrie did) or starting container gardens on what little outdoor space they have (as Julie and I have).

I have plenty of friends my age who are into composting, vermiculture and growing of all sorts of things: in fact, last year, a young couple, two friends of mine, and their two 20-something male roommates grew a garden in the front and backyard of their Hampden rental home, resulting in sunflowers, *corn* and other more run-of-the-mill plant life. And there's been a growth in guerilla gardening, a movement surely fueled by Gen Y.

I could draw up more anecdotal evidence -- and young garden bloggers online (OK, just one) -- but perhaps I'll save that for a post. The important point is this: just because we're not gardening (or consuming news) like you are, doesn't mean we aren't gardening.

Concurring with Mary above. I think gardening is one of the key components of the DIY/green/frugal lifestyle that many people of all ages but ESPECIALLY Gen Y is embracing.

Lots of people, 20- and 30-somethings included, want to rediscover how to grow/can/make their own food, how to produce it with as little minimal impact on the environment and to reap quality --- without emptying their wallets.

I guess there might be one big difference: it's not about ornamental shrubs and wide expanses of pesticide-laden yard, anymore.

I grew up with the concept of growing food, so it's nothing new to me. The main thing is that my generation ( almost 30) is that there is a perception that it's "difficult"; same goes for cooking due to the saturation of TV shows. My partnered friends think that gardening/cooking takes a ton of effort and time, which in reality, it doesn't. I have a micro farm, complete with chickens and daily upkeep is maybe 2 hours a day on a "chore" day. It's not for lack of want of a garden; it' fear of an all consuming hobby a la one's grandmother.

Like many others twenty-somethings, I find these broad generalizations about our lifestyle and generation to be both frustrating and inaccurate. I find what is written here to be especially upsetting because of the simple fact: I DO garden.

I could point to articles and examples of people who do, but why should I have to? The proof is apparent all around us, from booming CSAs to community gardens to the overflowing container gardens on balconies I pass every single day on my way to work, all maintained by people of EVERY generation.

You (authors) seem so concerned that "I am not completely convinced we can get the next generation to repeat what we have done -- in gardening or anything else," and to that, I say good! Journalists, parents, and people in general have to learn that just because we may not do things the way they did (i.e. don't plant Victory Gardens in our huge back yards) does not mean that we don't embrace things like gardening in our own ways.

We are young, we are experimental, and yes, we are still learning. Maybe you don't see floods of twenty-somethings overcrowding Home Depot or Lowe's, but by no stretch of the imagination should you take this to mean that we aren't out in the dirt like you are. Like some previous posters have said - along with embracing nature and a more green lifestyle than our parents, we look for ways to garden and do things ourselves that may be considered by some less traditional. We find pots from freecycle and Craigslist and in the dumpster behind our apartment complex. We save money by buying the ripped bags of peat and composting our own food scraps.

The absence of our dollars in high-end specialty gardening shops should not indicate a lack of commitment or interest. For me, at least, it's simply that I'd rather spend my $24.99 on a new pair of shoes than an overpriced spade.

If you find the broad generalizations about your generation to be irritating and inaccurate, this baby boomer has only one thing to say: Welcome to my world. We've been living this since 1968!

Thanks everyone for your wonderful and inspiring comments.

I don't have too much to add, but I just want to say I'm hoping that this moment is a REVOLUTION and not a fad.

A friend of mine just emailed me a link to the Maryland New Farmer Training Program this morning:

I actually take offense to this article. I'm 31 years old and have been gardening my entire life. I spend more time in my garden than most of my neighbors do. You claim most of us are too busy playing video games to actually go and enjoy the outdoors- but the opposite is true for me and a lot of my friends. I volunteer at the local museum, a local farm, and help landscape schools through a program at my church. Pretty much ALL of the people I work with on those projects are around my age. In addition to everything listed above, I have a three year old daughter who helps me tend to our organic vegetable garden. She knows how to compost, feed the worm bin, start seeds, mulch, pull weeds, and is an expert at spotting ripe tomatoes on the vine. I don't know why it's so hard for your generation to see we already ARE gardening. Is it because we don't typically join local gardening clubs or the GWA? Sorry, but we're too busy working and raising a family, and those types of organizations meet on weekdays and seem to cater to those that are retired.

I don't believe it's a generation thing as much as it is a mentor thing.

I am 25 years old and have never had a garden, not because I didn't want to, but because I know absolutely nothing about gardening and truly never thought of it before.

My mother had no interest in gardening, so I was never shown how to do it or shown why it's so rewarding and fun to do. The same thing goes with her mother, who was also not into it, which is why my mother never learned how to do it.

I recently purchased my first home and have become obsessed with gardening now. I'm constantly at the library researching flowers, climate conditions, soil requirements, sunlight needs, etc. because I'm truly excited for the first time ever to try my hand...or green/black gardening.

We'll see how it goes, I haven't started yet because I'm still reading up on all the do's and don'ts, but come Spring 2010, I'll be at the local nursery giving it the ol' college try.

Welcome aboard the gardening roller coaster! Start small, take it easy on yourself if you have failures and find a gardener in the neighborhood who might be good to give you advice. There are lots of seminars in the area, especially at Valley View Farms and Homestead Gardens. Good places to learn the basics. --Susan

Not buying that GenY'ers aren't gardeners--I'm 30 and have been gardening since I was eight! My family had the most beautiful garden in the neighborhood, and neighbors would pay me to come and work on their gardens.

I will have to say that there is a lot of validity to this statement: "This is a generation which likes mentors, and this gives us, the older generation of gardeners, a chance to introduce them to gardening."

If it weren't for my neighbor who introduced me to gardening, I don't think I would have the skill and love of gardening that I do today. It's my stress creation.

So, I say two things:

1) Older gardeners (50+)---mentor Gen Y'ers... preach the pure joys of it (I agree...not products!)

2) Us, 25-30 somethings that have a passion for gardening need to reach out to our siblings and those we mentor to cultivate a love for gardening. Next spring, I commit to introducing a young Gen Y'er to gardening. I'll start with my 18-year-old sister!

Juliette. You are right on soooooo many points!

Hey, kids, get on my lawn!

My son (b. 1977) was my garden slave when he was growing up. I had him dig holes, mend broken PVC pipes, saw limbs, handpick snails and tote heavy bags of soil. I was afraid he might hate gardening when he grew up, but he's really into it. It's so amazing to have that in common w/him and delightful to have him ask for gardening advice. I have no doubt our love of gardening will continue through the generations, now that he has a son of his own.

Debra. My son and his midshipmen friends from the Naval Academy were my garden slaves during his four years there. What a treat that was! They could take out a tree or a giant shrub in minutes. Of course, then I had to feed them...--Susan

I am involved in the MD Master Garden program, and over the last several years, the people coming through the program seem to be younger and younger, and also seem to have new interests.

For example, there is a new energy around growing food, not only for personal use, but using vegetable gardens as a teaching tool for children. There also seems to be more interest in native plants and organic gardening.

Are these generalizations? Yes -and people who go through the Master Gardener program may not be indicative of the larger population.

But based on the people in the program, and the people who stop by our table at the farmers market, Gen Y is very interested in gardening.

rather fascinating. im 23, i live in orlando and i started getting interested in gardening about a year ago and only really started gardening back in july/august. im renting a place and have converted nearly every square inch of my property into a productive vegetable garden while starting a business performing sustainable landscaping practices. over the past 9 months or so i have turned several friends of mine on to the idea of gardening, now 4 of them are actually using their backyards to supplement if not provide for all of their families produce needs. im meeting people my age every day who are interested in what im doing. "gen Y" is tired of being sold tawdry substitutions for life. if we are "lazy" it is because we see no value in what the media and society has presented to us. going back to our roots is all our predecessors have left for us.

The key is to make it easy. Make it easy, and they will come.

I have a whole theory about this...but basically, we have to teach the next generation...whether they are our kids or our neighbors. Unfortunately, I didn't have anyone to teach me and I am probably not alone in that. So there is a lag here. And, frankly, the Internet is going to make a big difference in terms of "making it easy." -- Susan

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About Susan Reimer
Susan Reimer has spent 16 years writing about raising kids - among other topics - in her column for The Baltimore Sun. And every time son Joseph or daughter Jessie passed another milestone - driver's license, college, wedding or a move to a new military duty station - she has planted another garden. Now she will be writing about those gardens - and yours - here on Garden Variety.

Susan isn't an expert gardener, but she wasn't an expert mother, either. Both - the kids and the gardens - seem to be doing well in spite of her.

She lives in Annapolis with her husband, Gary Mihoces, who loves to cut his grass but has noticed that there seems to be less of it every time the kids pass another milestone.

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