Gen X and Y Gardeners – Can We Quit Worrying About This, Please?

Every year or two, some horticultural marketing team gets a buzzing insect in its collective shorts about Gen X and Y and how we aren’t gardening enough. The subtext is that gardening is a boomer activity and that at some scary date in the future, we will be left with no gardeners at all because all my generation likes to do is play video games and text with people who are sitting in the same room.

While the world has certainly changed, it hasn’t changed so much that gardening isn’t still an attractive activity. In fact, my generation’s reliance on technology has given us an even greater desire to get outside and plunge our hands into the soil, and the easy availability of information and inspiring ideas (Pinterest, anyone?) makes us more likely to get outside and garden, rather than less.

But I’ll admit it: on the whole, people in their twenties and thirties don’t garden as much as people 45-and-up. And, repeat after me, this is not a cause for concern. Why?

Gardening is most fun when you own your home. While I admit to gussying up my landlords’ gardens more than I should have, the fact remains that I wasn’t willing to buy that $300 Japanese maple until I had a place to stick it. A place that I owned. And most people don’t own their own home until they’re a little more settled in life, and usually, that starter home needs a bit of work before we feel we can change focus and start gardening.

Gardening costs money. We can make self-righteous claims about how black nursery pots are free and seeds cost a dollar, but let’s be honest here: that’s not going to look like what’s in the gardening magazines, and a black pot of dollar nasturtiums is not what most people want. Even the most rudimentary of cute container combos will cost $30 for the pot, $10 in soil, and $35 in plants. When you’re making $10 an hour slinging mochas, that’s a lot of work for one little container. Plus, that second job we work to pay the bills doesn’t leave us a whole lot of time for fluffing our pansies.

Gardening is something we like to do with our kids. Kids have a way of making our old Gen X and Y hobbies untenable. I mean, kids really aren’t any good at World of Warcraft when they’re little; all they want to do is drool on the controller and bang it on the table. When this realization sinks in, Gen X and Y do what other generations before us have done: we’ve looked around for new hobbies that might possibly keep the sproglets quiet or at least busy for a few moments whilst we engage in them. And what better than gardening, which offers the dual benefits of bug-squashing opportunities and the chance to get completely, unfathomably covered in muck? We love it, kids love it, and if we do a good job there might even be tomatoes at the end of summer to celebrate with.

So, home ownership, money and kids: when did YOU have all three? For most of us, that trifecta of gardening readiness happens a little later in life. Plus, it’s always cool to take up hobbies our friends understand, and that doesn’t happen with gardening till later either. I can’t tell you how many college friends dumped Coors into my perfectly-planned flowerpots at the end of a party. Uncool, man, uncool. Nowadays, my friends wouldn’t dream of drinking Coors, and they finish their cocktails like the civilized grownups we’ve become. Problem solved.

Besides all of that, I think the hand-wringing about us not gardening may be incorrect. Maybe it’s the crew I hang with, but I’d guess my generation is gardening more than previous generations did at our age (I’m not counting all the “indoor gardening” you boomers did in the sixties!), due to the edible gardening trend and the cool patio gardening ideas like gardening with succulents or vertical gardening – both things apartment gardeners can get behind.

So, if we are indeed gardening, what’s skewing those surveys that keep coming out? Well, the people who have their pants in a bunch about this are people trying to sell us things. And those people should be worried, because most horticultural companies just don’t “get” us. They want us to spray their products on our plants, buy flowered bifocals and aprons, strive for a ChemLawn and plant endless acres of petunias in our front yards. I’m sorry, but that’s not for us. We’re more Flora Grubb than Home Depot, and we’re questioning the lies Big Hort’s been trying to sell us all these years.

If you want to sell to Gen X and Y, I’ll tell you how: Don’t dumb it down, keep it modern and minimalist, and quit trying to sell us chemicals, even organic ones. We’ll pop $200 worth of succulents on our credit cards to make that vertical garden, but we wouldn’t take your Miracle-ick and flowered trowels home if they were free. The appeal of gardening is that it’s real and dirty and interesting, so anyone trying to sell us someone else’s dream about how it’s pristine, bug-free and takes no investment of energy beyond “Dig, Drop and Done” is completely missing the point.

But don’t take my word for it – here are some opinions from a few of my Gen X and Y gardening pals on what they want from the gardening industry:

Amanda Thomsen

Andrew Keys

Rochelle Greayer

What do you think? Have we had enough hand-wringing about this issue? Or is there really a problem here?

Comments

  1. says

    I completely agree, Gen. As a Gen X’er with plenty of young garden-design clients, that’s the way I see it too. They are totally into the garden, but they want it to be cool, sustainable, and real.

  2. says

    At our nursery at least half of the customers are 30 or younger. I think much of the hand wringing comes from the major players, who see these young people not following the same gardening path as generations before. Just like everything else, new ways are emerging along with new ideas of what it means to garden, and be a gardener. My younger customers seem to want to support the local economy, and as long as I have what they want, would rather shop with us than the large box stores, and other mass merchants. It’s a great time to be a small garden center with the local knowledge that is needed by a whole new wave of garden enthusiasts.

    • says

      Trey, I couldn’t agree more on all points. It’s a fear-based hand-wringing from people who want us to garden in precisely the same way some members of previous generations have gardened – by buying mass-produced items from big-box stores. I am so glad forward thinking people like you are running nurseries that can serve a wide range of interests. I am thrilled that one of my local indies has been doing succulent frame workshops. There’s an example of how to draw us in. Sheesh, I hate to think how much money I’ve spent on succulents this month! :)

    • says

      What??? Really? I think of you as having been gardening for-ever! Seven years, and look at you now. Shows how far you can get in such a short time when you have a true passion for it. How cool, Kylee.

  3. says

    Thank you, Gen! Thanks for saying what’s been rattling around in my head ever since the this topic started rolling around the Internet again recently. Here’s what I know: my guess is that 40% of the customers we get at our master gardener plant sale (11,000 plants in three hours move out the door) are my age (Gen X) or younger. All but one of my friends gardens to some extent but few to the level I do because they simply don’t have time for gardening on that level. Give us something interesting to buy and we’ll open our wallets … I see the companies with a younger core group of employees (by the way, I still consider that to be Gen X and younger … and I don’t feel like Gen X’ers are really very young anymore so this is not an unreachable goal) doing better in the gardening marketplace. Gee, think there could be a correlation there?

    • says

      High-five, Erin! (11K plants in three hours? Holy moly!) Don’t get me wrong, I love learning gardening from all kinds of people, old, young, whatever, but it always seems odd to have people complaining that Gen X/Y isn’t buying anything, only to find out that all their buyers for the shop are in their sixties. How about inviting the perspective of a few of those people you’re trying to reach? We might have some insights! (Of course, I do fully expect to be in the flowered-bifocal market in about 25 years, so let’s hope the nurseries keep some sense of balance about them! Why not help serve everyone?)

  4. says

    My mom is Carolyn Binder from Cowlick Cottage Farm, and she’s a wonderful semi-pro gardener (and blogger!). While she’s always liked gardening, it took a long time for her to find a place where we could have a big veggie garden and enough time to work in it.

    As a librarian & editor I spend more time weeding books and manuscripts than vegetables, but I often take my editing out into the garden. A younger coworker of mine just reduced his hours at the library so he would have time to start his organic garden. While we don’t always have time to garden, I think there is a lot of interest in living more locally and sustainably since young adults have been so significantly impacted by the recession.

    NPR has a great piece on young farmers who are moving back to the country and getting involved in a simpler lifestyle. While these young adults may not be common, their numbers are growing (so to speak): http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2011/12/12/143459793/who-are-the-young-farmers-of-generation-organic.

    • says

      N.V, thank you so much for stopping by. I just met your mom last week and she is adorable! Bitingly funny yet down-to-earth. And to find out you’re not only a gardener in your own right, but a librarian, editor and author – wow. Color me impressed. I just downloaded your first Kindle book and can’t wait to dig in: http://www.amazon.com/Redshift-New-Years-Day-ebook/dp/B005N3L79M/

      I too know people who have reduced their work hours so they can take more time for things like gardening. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find out that I missed out on things that would have helped me feel truly alive. Being outdoors and feeling a connection to the land is deeply important.

      Thanks for linking up to the NPR piece. I’ll go check that out now.

  5. says

    This is the best post yet on this (silly) topic. I look around at the garden blogging friends that I’ve made and most of them are Gen X & Y…we just aren’t doing It the same way that those before us have done it.

  6. says

    Okay that buries that once and for all I hope – if we could just get everyone who needs to read it to do so.

    Still, there’s that nagging problem that there are 11% fewer people following the baby boomers. Let’s hope that boomer longevity, container and indoor gardening, and keeping them healthy enough to keep gardening makes up for it. Any real increased interest is going to have to come from getting kids interested and changing the amount the next younger generation whatever they’re to be called spends proportionate to cars, clothes, movies, etc. once they have the home and kids.

    • says

      Well, there’s that, Sid. But of course if we have a reduced population, companies will have fewer people to keep employed and so the corresponding drop in purchasing due to population size won’t be a real problem in time? That’d be my perception, at least.

      I am starting to wonder if all the work we do to try to make gardening more attractive to people actually makes it seem less attractive in some ways. I mean, in order to attract gardeners, we try to make it seem easy and fashionable. But PR campaigns showing that something is fashionable usually has the opposite effect in my view, and making people think that gardening is easy breeds the style of gardening where people give up when they find it isn’t. Or worse, encourages people to take up a style of ease-based gardening which harms wildlife and human health, and thus creates a disconnect between people and the natural world. That type of gardening doesn’t breed long-term satisfaction. I mean, how connected can you feel to a garden with dead soil and no wildlife? It just feels wrong somehow.

      I really think that the more us gardeners chill out and enjoy gardening with all our hearts, the more it will become attractive and apparent to other people that this is a worthwhile way to spend time. If we want more new gardeners in the world, I think our time is better spent fully engaging in gardening with all its complexities and dirt rather than trying to attract new people to it. They’ll come on their own time.

  7. says

    Gen – this is such a good post – and a reminder that most of us did not have mothers or grandmothers (fathers and grandfathers?) teaching us as we knelt in their gardens. We come to gardening slowly. I don’t know that I would ever have thought of the battling of bindweed at one house or the planting of marigolds at another ‘gardening’ – it took the passage of time until I had a house and enough time to go outside and worry about something more than when was my husband going to get the lawn mowed.

  8. Chris says

    I LOVE this! Well said! I work for big hort and research some of those “ick” products of which you speak… and I absolutely agree with everything you just said… They’re for grandma and completely irrelevant to what our generation wants. I’m a gen X/Y gardener with a new home, a new career, and a new love of gardening… and I’ve been a horticulturist for more than a dozen years! As a previous commenter said, you put to words what’s been rattling around my head for a while. Thank you for this post.

  9. Katie E-P says

    Amen, sista! Thank you for writing the post I’m too lazy to write! (scratch that, I’m not too lazy, I’m too busy. working. as are many of my friends.)

    I get out in my garden to actually do work (other than watering and deadheading and harvesting) about once a month if I’m LUCKY.

    I think we work more hours, too.

  10. says

    I couldn’t agree more, Katie! I grew up in a family of gardeners, but didn’t really start gardening until my mid-30s–and I didn’t REALLY commit until my 40s. Enough with the labeling of generations already–people do different things at different times of their lives. Well said, Gen!

  11. says

    I admit to concern, being one of those ancient gardeners whose children aren’t in the least interested anymore, but I agree with your premise about the theoretical prerequisites for gardening, and then remember that although I was raised with a gardener, I didn’t begin to do it on my own until my late 20’s and early 30’s. So yep, maybe there is some hope for you youngsters!

  12. says

    I love gardening…but with no house, no money? Gardening is something that I”ll do later. It simply doesn’t fit in my life right now. I am enjoying the increase of community gardens and such that do allow apartment-dwelling cheapskates the opportunity to garden. Except they are often so popular that it’s hard to get a plot!

  13. says

    Good thought-provoking post and points! Though I see less “worrying” from those simply noting trends, and I like this whole topic. And others miss some of your points, like owning one’s own home (many forget, who now have a comfortable life and paid-for home). As a Gen X-er, getting a home, then one in a more hospitable area, are more recent.

    Selling what one’s target market wants is good, such as the Flora Grubb vs. Home Depot mindsets. Many miss that. And native / adapted plants will usually “grab” the more sophisticated of any age group.

    Perhaps some of this gardening, sustainability, or even native plant issue is more locale than age group? I’ve met or heard as many over 60 who get those as those 25-45.

    Maybe a deeper issue in desire for gardening is willingness to learn and think more sharply, not just parrot, which transcends age and geography.

  14. says

    Thanks for the great post- I completely agree with you. I’m head over heels in love with gardening despite being in my 20s, but being a home owner with a decent salary has a lot to do with that.
    Despite that, I have lots of friends who are renters and are in grad school who are constantly quizzing me on what seeds should be started when and what edibles will grow in shade. They’re not about to go out and buy trees or trowels, though- they’re just plopping some seeds into the two containers they own or the one raised bed that came with their rental house. Just wait until they own houses and have well-paying jobs, and I bet they’ll be serious hobby gardeners, drooling over the pretty perennials and fruit trees at our local garden center.

  15. says

    Gen, I love this eloquent and on-target post. Seems the main worry is that people aren’t buying the same products (the chemicals, the tchotchkes), and though Gen X/Y may be leading this trend, I see it happening in all ages of gardeners. Most of us have less money, time, water, and trust in mega companies. We are moving toward local buying, organic care, found and made objects, native and other well-adapted plants (and of course less lawn!). Frankly, I hope it continues.

  16. says

    Hi Gen, thanks for the great article. I’m 55, have been into plants and gardening (beyond organically) for as long as I can remember. Like yourself, I’ve always been willing to get $200 worth of sedums than to buy some new garden gadget or even a book that’s nothing more than regurgitated info from another book (I love those who are doing unique writing based on experience).
    I thought that these companies were trying to market to the younger gardeners, ones who probably didn’t know better and who would believe anything some company would lie about. This is quite interesting!
    Reading your article is making me think, and wonder, if in fact something different might actually be happening, like….
    Perhaps the companies of such products are pitting us gardeners (of all age groups) against one another???
    What I’ve seen over the years is that there’s what I call the ‘average American’ (no offense meant to anyone) who are probably not so up on the fact that there are ways to do things without buying the junk and toxic stuff lining store shelves. Marketing, itself, has made a severe impact on human thinking and behavior. So, I’m just wondering if they’re saying these types of things (which they are well-known to do) in an attempt to make those who do not buy into it a freak of sorts to their peers and other generations who are buying into it???
    Basically what I’m saying is, I smell a skunk.

  17. says

    Well said, Gen.

    I’m Gen-X and just finished the Master Gardener’s training. I’d say 40% of the class were Gen X & Y. Lots of interesting people from a variety of backgrounds who are doing very cool things with gardening, especially in urban settings.

    People are busy and so if gardening is a fun hobby but not a committed passion, they have to find a way to fit it in. This is why I write DIY projects that can be tackled easily, have high reward (results you can see quickly), and are crafty. You are spot on with the succulents and vertical gardening comments.

    I also volunteer at a farm program at the University where we teach school kids farming alongside university students. There is seriously a lot of passion for food gardening, but it’s about seed starting, harvesting, and cooking. Think compost tea not Miracle-ick (love that), and homemade newspaper seed pots not expensive plantable fiber pots.

    If the industry really wants to grow new gardeners then they would be best to sell education rather than gimmicks.

    • says

      “If the industry really wants to grow new gardeners then they would be best to sell education rather than gimmicks.” YES, Stevie! And your blog hits just the right points for people in our age range. Your projects are awesome.

  18. we says

    Being gardener means being part of the earth, even if just one or two small containers. just do your best! The earlier the better!

  19. Cindy Graebner says

    Love this article. AND the picture says it all…the fun of dirt, very nice dirt from the look of it, chickens, a kitty, and of course some plants and the gardener. The delight of the garden, making it whatever you want. And the process is definitely the key…working somewhere that you enjoy being— outside…sun or clouds…even in the rain or drizzle. I am a gardener who has no gadgets. A digging fork and spade, pruners, loppers, a trowel or two..oh I do love my pole pruner…keeps me off ladders. Anyway, thank you Gen for keeping your wonderful website…always full of interest and great photos.

  20. says

    Throw away the TV, the game consoles, and limit computer usage. Get the kids outside helping in the garden while stimulating their imaginations! Encourage them to read books and think. Get them running and playing outdoors. Take them on hikes and teach them about our natural world and the power of observation. Invest in plants that have the potential to grow for a lifetime or two and stop investing in STUFF that falls apart or gets stolen!

    Ok, sorry, you obviously touched on a pet peeve of mine. :^)

  21. says

    Amen, sister! The passion for gardening never dies – but certain life stages do make it more difficult. Pretty soon, us younger folks are going to get that bigger house, that bigger paycheck and we are going to haul some serious gardening ass… I think if the industry keeps letting us know it’s there for our generation – with things such as products that are meaningful, support a cause and are cool, funky and artsy, they will be rewarded with our buying power.

  22. Dianna K. says

    Maybe it has something to do with where you live as well. I live in a rural area. Very few people I know garden, and the ones that do are the” big box store- who cares about sustainability” type. I went completed my Master Gardener classes with about a dozen people my age (45) and most did not know or care about the difference between a daisy and a marigold let alone the chemicals put into our soils. I found it very worrisome! I am hoping and praying that you guys are right!! I would sleep better at night.

  23. says

    I just read a blurb somewhere about a similar thing, asking why we don’t start gardening until we’re a bit, you know, older. For me, it was totally about the house. I was always interested in gardening (my grandpa build me a square foot garden for my 16th birthday), but moving from apartment to apartment every few years didn’t really lend itself to much more than the occasional planter box. I see a similar pattern with my friends– and these days, we are all moving from a balcony full of potted plants to real houses with real gardens! Just like real grown ups! :)

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