The lone voice of horticultural reason

Is Gardening Dead

5-25-06– Pack up your perennials, shield your shrubs, and batten down the compost bins: That low, whooshing sound you’re hearing is the air being let out of the gardening industry. After years of steady growth, researchers at the National Gardening Association report that sales of lawn and garden products dropped three percent in 2003 and four percent in 2004. Nursery sales, which peaked at $39.6 billion in 2002, have also tilted toward decline during the same period.

Results for 2005 are still being tallied, but few in the industry expect the news to be good.

It’s official: The gardening boom appears to be over. The nail biting, hand wringing, and finger pointing by executives within the industry, however, has just begun. These people are absolutely frantic, all asking the same urgent question: What killed the great, gorgeous goose that for decades had effortlessly laid those gigantic, golden eggs?

From The New York Times to the nursery industry trade magazine Green Profit, articles and editorials are blaming the baby boomers, noting that as the boomers continue to age, they are no longer gardening at the same pace they exhibited in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As noted in the Times, “Although boomers are still gardening, they are slowing down. Their backs are giving out. They’re tired of expensive perennials that keel over in a drought.” (“Baby Boomers, Digging Ben-Gay,” January 5, 2006)

Now hold on just a minute. If the fact that a majority of baby boomers are segueing into their sixties is the answer, why aren’t other industries that involve active participation—golf, tennis, fly fishing, travel, bicycling, and scuba diving, to name a few—witnessing the same decline? If it’s always up to the boomers, why, instead of growing, isn’t the entire US hobby and leisure industry in decline?

One can guess intuitively that as the boomers garden less, upcoming generations—homeowners in their 30s and 40s—aren’t picking up the slack. It’s the correct assumption. Sports such as golf and tennis continually attract the young. Fly-fishing is the epitome of nouveau-cool. Kids who would rather hide in a closet than help mom plant pansies or dad prune the hedge can’t keep still the week before traveling with family to Yellowstone or Disneyworld. The Lance Armstrong look-alikes who whiz down my street (are one hundred people allowed the yellow jersey?) appear twenty or thirty years away from their first close encounter with Mr. Ben-Gay. And more people are learning to scuba dive today than in any period in history.

So why aren’t the joys of gardening, and the pleasures and prestige of being an astute gardener, being assumed by the next generation of homeowners? After all, by the early ‘90s, tossing off the Latin names of the perennials you grew, comparing notes on your favorite vintage rose varieties while lunching at the club, and inviting dinner guests outside to view the three thousand-dollar Oregon stone pine you just added to your private conifer collection was all the rage. Why hasn’t gardening remained hip?

Marketing strategists within the gardening industry think they know the answer and are already mounting their counterattack. Unfortunately, this is where I start wincing, and where new gardeners had better start paying attention.

An editorial addressing the issue in the February, 2006 issue of Green Profit states, “As for younger generations, who are just buying their first homes and settling down to raise families, it’s time for us to make sure they’re aware of our industry and the wonderful benefits that can be found in our products.”

“Found in our products.” At last, I bring you the rub. If the gardening industry is going to resort to marketing to younger generations of homeowners the kinds of products they have introduced over the past ten years, interest in and money spent on gardening will continue to decline for decades to come. For the question to ask is not what killed the golden goose, but who. And I’ve known the answer, and been sounding the alarm, for years.

Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls …

Why are sales of plants and garden products in decline? Look no further than the major nurseries and garden product manufacturers, their marketing experts, and, in the end, the insipid, pandering “products” they produce. This is an industry that has not only shot itself in the foot, it has done so while stabbing itself in the heart.

What propels allegiance to any hobby? The quest for advancement of skill. We become hooked on hobbies that allow us to get better, to experience with ease this year something that had baffled us before. Why does a person spend four hours shooting a round of golf? Being outside is nice, the walking is good for you, but slicing a stroke or two off the score you shot last week is the whole point of the exercise. Husbands and wives who scuba dive come home from an expedition to Bonaire and immediately start planning next year’s trip to Cozumel, where the dives are deeper, the currents faster, and the required diving skills more advanced.

My brother is an expert fly-fisherman. Not just good, expert. I stopped by his house one night in February and he was upstairs in a spare bedroom, blissfully tying flies. This summer in Montana, he’ll spend an hour working a pool or deep ripple in some wilderness stream because he knows there’s a big rainbow trout down there, has to be. He’s worked so hard and for so long at his hobby that he’s one of the few fly-fishermen in a hundred who will finally coax the suspicious old fish to strike. Payoff. Couldn’t do that ten years ago, but now, hey.

The gardening industry? Over the past ten years—the past five have been the worst—they’ve been licking their chops eyeing the nearly 82 million American households that have a yard or garden, then proceeded to market their plants, products and procedures to these consumers as if tending to one’s yard and garden was a necessary evil.

“We make gardening easy!”

Promotional taglines in the same vein as the one above run rampant across the industry. Marketing executives are convinced that American homeowners are a bunch of over-worked, stressed out, attention deficit-disordered nut baskets that haven’t the time, desire, or ability to learn how to garden. This dumbing-down of gardening in America is evident in many of the national advertisements for plants and garden products you see, read, and hear. The most common catchwords and phrases include “foolproof,” “easy,” “low-maintenance,” “simple,” “time saving,” and “instant.” Industry executives are so afraid prospective new gardeners will discover that certain gardening duties might result in breaking a fingernail, breaking a sweat, or take longer than fifteen minutes, they’ve minimized gardening’s inherent learning curve down to near nothing.

A current example: Plant catalogues that used to sell plants for us to place where we saw fit have begun selling pre-designed, “garden in a box” kits. New homeowners beware! One can now order (and have conveniently delivered via UPS) a complete shade, butterfly, or cottage garden. Inside the box you’ll find pre-selected perennials and a foolproof plant-by-number installation diagram.

Sound easy, convenient? You bet they are. But have you ever seen those paint-by-number picture kits sold at craft stores, enabling you to paint a picture of a pirate ship, sorrowful clown, or two kittens rolling on a ball of yarn? You simply place the cardboard canvas on an easel, then fill in all the spaces numbered “1” with brown, “2” with yellow, “3” with blue, etc. When you’re done, you’ve created this perfect painting … but have you learned how to paint? Have you developed in any way as an artist? Have you learned one single damn thing?

Purveyors of these plant-by-number garden kits don’t think curious new gardeners are smart enough, or have the desire, to learn design. They’re assuming they can grow allegiance to the hobby and increase profits by enticing younger homeowners with a product that dictates to them what to plant and where to plant it, usurping free choice and the need to master even basic gardening skills. This is akin to a tour company offering Montana fly-fishing excursions where anglers toss any old fly into a stream and let it disappear around a bend. There, a hidden guide takes a live trout from a bucket, hooks the fly to the trout’s lips, and tosses it into the current. No need to work the stream so as to keep your shadow off the water, master a proper roll, spey, or snap T cast, or fuss with having to match the hatch. You could have a musky rod in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and still be guaranteed, “ a strike on every cast!”

No wonder gardening—one of the most rewarding, satisfying, stress-reducing hobbies in the world—is having trouble inciting interest from younger generations of homeowners. One activity (of many) in gardening that will hook you for a lifetime is learning how to place plants in pleasing relationship to each other. You become the artist, to the point where slowly, honing your skill a bit each year, you learn how to create in your yard a gorgeous patch of landscape unique to the planet. These “instant” gardens deny you this opportunity.

Even when the nursery industry creates and sells plants homeowners are allowed to choose and place where they see fit, industry avarice minimizes the essential aspects of gardening that cultivate successful followers. What the industry sells you is color, which is why in the spring greenhouses, annuals and roses have been fast-forced into bloom. The best thing to do before planting these products is to pinch or prune all the flowers off, so plants will settle into your soil by reverting back to their root development stage.

In just a few weeks, the plants will have begun growing properly, and will become healthier and more bloom-filled throughout the season than if planted while in flower. Fewer of your plants will fail, or look ragged during the dog days of August. New gardeners won’t be so apt to study their downward-spiraling garden and think, “Dang, I went to all that work, and all I’ve learned is maybe I’m not cut out for this hobby.” But the industry never advertises this information, and few nurseries do the right thing: sell gardeners plants that have not yet reached the budding and blooming stage. What they sell is color.

Another Fine Mess

Surely you’ve witnessed the invasion of concrete retaining wall block into the residential landscape arena. Originally developed for use in highway construction projects in the ‘60s, concrete wall block next crept into the corporate campus scene as a structurally more viable alternative to wood timbers. In the ‘70s, manufacturers realized, hey, this stuff is inexpensive, flat, easy to install—let’s sell it to residential landscapers, and to homeowners of the do-it-yourself ilk. Soon this visually vapid product—in two color choices, buff, or brown—began appearing in suburban residential landscapes.

That these concrete retaining walls lent the distinctive air of a state penal facility to one’s yard was overlooked by landscapers and homeowners dazzled by the monstrous marketing behind this fool-proof, easy to install, revolutionary innovation. One could quickly have a retaining wall that looked like everyone else’s.

Take a drive through any of the older Twin Cities neighborhoods. Look at the unique, charming stonework, the mortared stone retaining walls, dry-stack walls, stone steps, arches, and stone entrance monuments. Look at suburban yards where the homeowner has opted for retaining walls made of boulders or quarried wall stone, instead of vapid concrete. Which look do you prefer?

Sure, for both professional landscapers and do-it-yourselfers, concrete products for use in retaining walls, sidewalks, and patios are cheaper and easier to install than stone. Working with stone, you see, involves a learning curve for scoring, and breaking, chiseling, fitting, and placement. Homeowners in particular should beware of attempting landscape projects involving stone because working with stone can be satisfying to the point of addiction, what with the fact that actual skills might be discovered and developed, not to mention a flair for creative artistry.

Over the years the concrete landscaping products have become better looking, as manufacturers have begun tumbling the product and infusing it with aggregates to give it subtle color variations and overall more stone-like appearance. I’m a big fan of tumbled, color-blended concrete pavers for driveways and formal patios. Still, one glance and you know it isn’t stone. The logical next step in the gardening industry’s “anything that saves money and makes it easier” mantra? Attempts to replicate stone using the great American wonder material, plastic.

Plastic rocks are marketed to homeowners as an inexpensive, easy-to-install raised-bed edging material that, according to one press release, “duplicates the look and feel of real stone.” No, what they look and feel like is plastic. One system involves perfectly uniform, sixteen inch-long by eight inch-high, molded plastic “stone” pieces with flat bottoms and ends. All the homeowner does is butt them end-to-end along the edge of the garden bed and voila, instant stone border.

One small problem: Each “stone” weighs about ten ounces, meaning they will wash out in a thunderstorm, if the wind doesn’t blow them onto your neighbor’s roof first. So each unit has holes drilled top through bottom on each end, into which you hammer flat-head, twelve-inch stakes. The flat heads of each stake are clearly visible running along the top of your instant, easy-to-install “stone” garden edge, but hey, that’s progress.

One-piece, plastic waterfalls are another recent innovation. Why have the fun and satisfaction of learning how to position boulders, smaller stones, and gravel while creating a unique, stone waterfall of the exact size you want, when you can plunk a pre-formed, plastic mini-mountain in the yard? Yes, they look as dreadful as they sound—not that they are large enough to make much noise.

Why has the garden industry suffered a decline in sales? They’ve lowered the standards. They’ve been suckered into submission by polls that show that Americans are strapped for leisure time. That may be true, but Americans always make time for what they enjoy doing. Rather than stick to their guns, and trust the principles that made gardening the number-one leisure time activity in America, homeowners are offered shortcuts and quick fixes, ease over self-education, thus eliminating the subtle seductions that turn homeowners into gardeners.

Bringing Growth Back to Gardening

I’m fifty and sometimes feel as if my life is an accelerating freefall through a flaming gauntlet of work- and family-related deadlines, demands, and duties. I can imagine how stressed for time younger generations of homeowners feel, particularly those with real jobs. In an attempt to take control over at least some portion of our lives, we tend to look for hobbies, for any rewarding, engaging, challenging, or relaxing diversion that doesn’t involve the slavery of boss and office.

To all young homeowners, and to homeowners of any age looking for a hobby, may I suggest you give gardening a go. If you begin by ignoring the industry blather detailed above and focus on the recommendations below, chances are good you’ll discover that gardening is the ideal hobby for you.

Seven Benefits of Gardening

• Easy Access – Everyone enjoys a hobby that gets you out of the house—how about one where you leave the house but travel no further than the yard?

• Stress Reduction – Gardeners cite stress reduction and overall infusion of serenity as the prime benefits they gain from gardening. Few hobbies introduce adherents to such a complete communion with nature. Hiking, sure, you’re walking through nature; gardening, you’re creating the vista, then walking through it.

• Increase in Home Value – Money spent on landscaping (particularly the addition of lower-maintenance trees and shrubs) brings a return of between fifty to one hundred percent. A finished, enticing landscape also helps a home sell faster.

• Environmental Stewardship –Taking a patch of extraneous lawn and planting trees, shrubs, and perennials is a great gift to the planet. Plants help clean the air of pollution, and provide habitat for wildlife.

• New Friends – Gardeners are an easy-going, social lot, and as you join their ranks you’ll undoubtedly make new friends. Beginning to garden is a great way to meet the neighbors.

• Improved Self-Confidence – Any good hobby affords opportunity to improve your skills, and that’s what gardening is all about. After five years you’ll be surprised by how much you’ve learned; you’ll notice a change in your overall self-confidence and wellbeing.

• Exercise – Gardening is good exercise, and when you garden you’ll be exercising your entire body, at your pace, and to the level you choose.

Growing as a Gardener

Fear of failure is a common excuse for all of us to shy away from any new hobby or endeavor. Listen, everyone starts out stumbling and shaky as a new gardener. Failure at first is common, it is normal, and should be expected. When plants die, when projects don’t go as planned, when your first garden doesn’t look so hot, give yourself an A. How in the world did you figure out that your first little attempt at a garden isn’t great? Because you’re already learning. Next year—or tomorrow—you start making it better. You’ve become a gardener.

Become Inspired

Get out and visit public gardens and parks and arboreta in your area. Start reading gardening magazines and books. Note lovely gardens and attractive landscapes in your neighborhood, get out of the car, walk, stand and look. In all cases, steal with your eyes.

Starting in late June, community garden tours are held in towns and cities across America . Most run two or three days over a weekend, with new tours starting each week well into July. Tours enable you to see what good gardeners have done to create great landscapes for their homes, from small city lots to larger suburban acreage. Check local newspapers and community billboards to learn about garden tours in and around your area.

Become Educated

If you want to prune years off the average timeframe for reaching gardening competency, join a garden club. Your state probably has a state horticultural society, find out and contact them. Contact your county extension office and they’ll tell you how to get in touch with a Master Gardener. Master Gardeners will have tons of information on gardening clubs and associations.

Joining a garden club in your community is a sure-fire way to meet impassioned gardeners, who also happen to be your neighbors. Don’t be bashful, every single member you meet was once a beginner, and the wealth of information—not to mention new friends—you’ll gain from joining even a small club will quickly pay dividends. Highly recommended for the recently divorced!

Check community education catalogues for your town, city or suburb. Inexpensive gardening classes are offered in nearly every community across the country. In addition to learning from experts, they afford an excellent opportunity to ask questions specific to your yard and gardening plans.

There’s good reason why gardening has grown over the years to become the number-one leisure time activity in America . Gardening engages the mind, lowers the pulse, raises the spirit, and soothes the soul. Don’t let the incessant industry “dumbing down” of gardening turn you away, or diminish the great and lasting benefits of this magnificent pastime. To fall in love with gardening, to become a gardener, can be much more than a hobby; it can be a life-changing experience.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener