The lone voice of horticultural reason

Is Gardening Dead?

Gardening, as I have said a hundred times in an equal number of variations across the pages of this ancient website, is not easy. Now I’m beginning to fear that gardening has become the problem child of hobbies—sometimes smiling and cheerful, other times angry and self-centered. The child is obedient to a request by parents to accompany them to a movie on the same day he/she secretly was truant from school.

Beginning gardeners fail to some degree, all the time. This problem-child hobby disappoints. That veteran gardeners also fail is unknown to these beginners. Failures by veteran gardeners are minor and occur far less often. We raised the same problem child, you see, just stuck to astute parenting long enough to watch the kid grow out of the phase where at 16 he’s sneaking our booze and throwing up in the bathroom. Graduating college and landing a good job, our problem child visits now and then. We all laugh about what a screwed up kid he was.

Failure at gardening by new gardeners is normal, essential, obligatory. It’s par for the course. But no one tells them this.

That’s a big reason why gardening is dying, or to be kinder – since people will always garden to some degree somewhere – is in a slow and steady decline. The numbers prove it, both in annual expenditures on gardening related products and services in the US, as well as in the total number of Americans who willingly call themselves gardeners.

The hobby faces the same problem faced by Major League Baseball: not enough young fans. The people who most love gardening and practice it at its highest levels are growing feeble, dying out.

How do we cultivate the next generations of gardeners?

My son is twenty-two, good kid, smart, gregarious, talented in writing and music, soon to be graduating college. Sure, at 16 he was steeling my booze. But because he’s worked on my landscaping crew the past four summers, he gets it, appreciates plants and knows good, solid gardening basics.

When he leaves and starts his own life and eventually buys a home, he may not garden immediately, but at least he’ll know if the landscaping surrounding his new home is worth a damn or not. And at some point, I’m guessing, gardening will follow.

If I may indulge myself and share with you a tender moment of parenthood: When my son started on my landscaping crew, he was eighteen and was exactly like every eighteen-year-old punk kid I’ve ever hired, yawning in the morning from a late evening of entertainment, leaving all his tools wherever his appointed task had taken him, a clock-watcher (of course), slowing down his pace in preparation of the impending announcement by his boss that we could take our lunch break.

What else… lacking thoroughness, needing to be reminded over and over of every subtle nuance to what we were doing that day, sitting down upon completion of a task instead of looking for what’s next to be done. (Oh, young people, how they do ache to sit down on their bottoms. They will sit down when planting a perennial, sit down when weeding, sit down when screwing on an extension to a downspout. Until you tell them they can’t. It slows you down. You crouch, or kneel, but never sit.)
Giddy when the order of tasks for the day resulted in us knocking off at 4:30, quietly pissed off when I made the crew work until 6:00, or later, that was my son and every other newbie. The fact that he was being paid by the hour apparently didn’t account for much.

We had done a lot of tear-outs and small jobs his first season, when later in the year we did a quite large landscape renovation. It involved the complete removal of a large number of tired, worn-out plants throughout the property, a major redesign of the bed lines, removal of a plain, straight concrete sidewalk and replacement with a curving, artful stone entryway.

By this time my son had acquired some skills, had done enough of the same things enough times that he required little supervision, and even knew most of the names of the plants. We were on this job for the better part of a month. Toward its end, after the new plants were in place and the stonework was nearing completion, we were all pitching mulch when he looked out across the new landscape and said, “Wow. This looks really cool.”

Be still my heart. He even went to the truck to get his iPhone (no phones allowed on your person when working crew) and shot photos so he could post them to his Facebook account. Look what I do!

It was the first sign that he was beginning to understand that what his old man did every day for half the year had some small importance, some positive meaning for something or someone. At the very least, what we did was help make something look really cool. After that, he was fine. His second year with me, he started working like hell, all on his own.

My point is, what percentage of kids his age are going to see the value in gardening, in landscaping, or be touched, as are all my crew members over the years, by the absolute wonder and magic of plants? When most young people today grow tired of their smart phone in a year, the hottest new video game quicker than that, and are so consumed by computers and other electronic devices that most seem to exist in an alternative reality? (Or is their reality the new real, and ours now the phony?)

Every new kid I’ve ever had on my crew, when I see an acorn, I pick it up, I stop what he’s doing and give it to him, tell him to place it in his palm and study it. Then I tell him that he could put that acorn in his pocket, fly to London, take a train out to the rural English countryside, hike across fields to the edge of a forest, plant the acorn, and two hundred years from now, in that spot would be an eighty-foot oak tree.

I ask him to ponder the fact that inside that acorn is life, and that there isn’t a scientist in the world who could show this thing called life to him under a microscope, or even explain to him what it is or how it works. Yet that acorn contains an eighty-foot oak tree he could plant in Europe.

It gets them thinking.

But back to our problem child. I think what freaks most people out about gardening is that a) the hobby involves a very high number of relatively simple details that when combined, appear daunting, and b) you are dealing with life forms. Bowling, all you need is a ball. Maybe you change the weight or the placement of the grip holes a few times during your lifetime, but aside from that, it’s set ‘em up and knock ‘em down. You don’t have to worry about the pH of the lane being in the right range for the health of the pins.

Jewelry making, quilting, baking, bridge, you might screw up, something may not turn out the way you wanted, but you didn’t kill anything.

Golf is a hobby more akin to gardening, as there is the mild exercise, sun (or rain) in your face, the fresh air and tweeting birds aspect to it. But when you go golfing and have a horrible round, few quit. A bad round happens. You’re more determined to tear up the course next time. The gardening equivalent to a hopeless round of golf – you plant something and it dies – causes far too many people to freak out, and decide they’re never trying that again. The poor thing died—and I killed it!

Then there is the physical labor aspect of gardening. Let’s face it, gardening can be hard work. Incidentally, this is why I started this website so many years ago, to be able to write this simple sentence: “Let’s face it, gardening can be hard work.” There’s not a magazine or newspaper editor for whom I’ve written who lets that sentence fly in an article to be published in his or her publication. Which is why I taught myself to write two ways, this way, and then my fake magazine voice (of which I grow increasingly weary).

Which all points to why young, new and potential gardeners are privy mainly to the saccharine drivel that passes for garden writing one sees today in newspapers and magazines, about how easy gardening is, about wonderful, new, fool-proof plants and gardening techniques, about low-maintenance plants and landscapes—as if such things could ever exist.

A big problem is the Internet. A lot of online gardening articles and plant advertisements are written by nameless non-gardeners employed by marketing companies. Where do they get their research? Off the Internet.

At the first sign of trouble, new gardeners immediately are disillusioned. Meanwhile, any veteran gardener who reads this will cheerfully join me when I state that there are days when gardening plain sucks. So you quit for a couple days. When you resume, it’s lovely again, and there’s nothing grander you would choose to do with your spare time.

It’s a catch-22. You have to learn how hopeless and disappointing gardening can be before you truly appreciate its fabulous challenges and savor its sweet success. Young people don’t have the time or attention span for that first part.

Gardening is a hobby that needs to be passed on generation to generation for it to remain viable as a hobby for the masses. Nurseries providing gardening classes for the public and other forms of educational programs are a fine idea, and they probably help, but I think also it’s fair to cut some slack: Maybe the decline of gardening is inevitable, that these newer generations of human life forms are evolving in such a way that gardening can never regain its broad appeal.

Young people want to live in the city in their small, energy efficient condos and bike to work, join their friends on weekends at the newest micro-brewery and get their dose of nature during their annual hiking trip.

They’ve no time for adopting a problem child, even if someday they own a house on some land. I just don’t see the seed being planted, certainly not in the same numbers as prior generations. And while I dread this, I’m wise enough to recognize that change is inevitable, that my desire for all to discover the joys of gardening is selfish. I know better than to know better. At least most of the time.

To those of you who love gardening, that’s fabulous. Enjoy every day in the garden, except for those you don’t, learn, nurture, and revel in the magic of life. Try to pass along your passion for gardening every chance you get, to your children, your grandchildren, and youngsters in your community.

If rebuffed, if you have a hard time gaining a young person’s interest in our peaceful passion, well, once a summer, at least take the kid to a ballgame.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener