The lone voice of horticultural reason

Slouching Towards Gardening

“I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.”
      – Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

My son working crew, 2013.

11-01-13 – Gardening, as I have said a hundred times in an equal number of ways throughout the pages of this ancient website, is not easy. But more than that, I’m beginning to dread gardening as the problem child of hobbies, sometimes smiling and cheerful, other times angry and self-centered, obedient to a request by parents to accompany them on an outing, on the same day the child secretly was truant from school.

Gardening is dying, slowly, or to be kinder – since people will always garden to some degree somewhere – it 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 currently 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.

So it is troublesome, to say the least, to sense a growing level of dread – not high, but it’s there – within myself concerning the current state of the hobby, and its future. How do we cultivate the next generations of gardeners?

My son is twenty-two, good kid, smart, gregarious, talented in writing and music, and soon to be graduating college. 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, hopefully, 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 crew, he was eighteen and was like every eighteen-year-old punk kid I’ve ever hired to be on my crew, often yawning in the morning from an 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. They will sit down when planting a perennial, sit down when weeding, until you tell them they can’t.) Outwardly giddy when the order of tasks for the day resulted in us knocking off at 4:30 p.m., quietly pissed off when I would make the crew work until 6:00 p.m., or later. 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, involving the complete removal of a large number of tired, worn-out plants throughout the property, a major redesigning 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 cool. After that, he was fine.

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 hold it in his hand 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, you need a ball, maybe you change the weight or the placement of the grip holes a few times during your career, but aside from that, set ‘em up, 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, or quilting, you might screw something 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, fresh air 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 of 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 work. Incidentally, this is why I started this website so many years ago, to be able to write about gardening the simple sentence, “Let’s face it, gardening can be work.” There’s not a magazine or newspaper editor for whom I’ve written who would let 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, where the gardening articles and e-mail plant advertisements are written by nameless non-gardeners employed by marketing companies.

At the first sign of trouble, new gardeners are immediately 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 bit. Then when you resume, it’s lovely again, and there’s nothing grander you could 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 taste its sweet success. Young people don’t have the time or attention span for that first part.

I think gardening is a hobby that needs to be passed on generation to generation in large part 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, probably even if someday they own a house on some land. I just don’t see the seed being planted, certainly not in the numbers of past generations. And while I dread this, I’m a wise enough old coot to recognize that change is inevitable, that my desire for all to discover the joys of gardening is primarily 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 a few kids to a ballgame.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener