Not too long ago I was ruminating on the possible reasons why more older gardeners aren’t blogging. Besides all the reasons I mentioned in that post, there was also a more personal reason for thinking about it. Let’s face it, this is my future we’re looking at. Already my vision is worse than it used to be, I get aches from typing too long, and neither my flexibility nor my posture has improved from the time I spend in front of a computer monitor. Sure, I thrive on the technology now, but when I’m a really “old dog”, will I still be learning new tricks? Or will it seem like too much bother? And that’s looking at the blogging end of things. We all know gardening isn’t going to get any easier.
But it’s not all about me. Books like Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, as well as the fact that my old childhood haunts are developments now, make me wonder if children today have enough exposure to the natural world to even want to garden. And reports that school children don’t know where carrots or boneless, skinless chicken breast really come from only confirm my worst fears. It’s enough to make you reminisce about the good ‘ol days.
A Gardener is a Gardener is a Gardener?
Outside of my own progeny, I don’t know many people in the twenty-to-thirty year range. But I guess I always assumed that, like my own kids, some enjoy gardening and some don’t. And, taking a page from my own life, I assumed more of them would start gardening as they got a little older. After all, a gardener is a gardener is a gardener.
Well, yes and no. I’m sure I’d find plenty to talk about with a gardener of any age, but there’s no denying that the times and circumstances you grow up in affect your attitudes toward so many things, some more easily discerned than others. Everyone can understand why someone who grew up in the Depression is more frugal than their present circumstances require, but I never could understand why my grandparents thought the Beatles’ songs were “just a lot of noise.”
I’d be the first one to admit I’m out of it, so when I was at the Garden Writers symposium I decided to attend “Reconnecting the Disconnect,” a session purportedly about inspiring Generations X and Y “back to the world of dirt.” The whole idea kind of irked me, though. It sounded a bit like “How can we get these kids to eat their vegetables?” They’d start gardening when they were good and ready. After all, a gardener is a gardener is a gardener.
Are there differences?
Yes, I just don’t want to believe there’s any difference between a 25-year-old gardener and 50-year-old gardener, even though when I was 25, 50-year-olds may as well have been from another planet. The man presenting this session owned a pretty successful independent nursery, and the session was really about understanding the demographic so you can sell to it. I mean, them. I look at my notes from that session, and I see a bunch of disjointed phrases that don’t make a coherent whole. Some of what he described as “Gen Y” I thought applied to anyone involved with an online community: “always connected,” “peer to peer network,” “if they don’t like something, they tell the world,” “value transparency and honesty.” A lot of those terms could describe a garden blogger of any age. We want to see real gardens, not some space tricked out for a garden glossy. We tell each other what works and what doesn’t, not just on our blogs but on websites such as Garden Watchdog.
Other characteristics he pointed out didn’t seem specific to Gen Y as much as characteristic of any younger generation. “Hard to reach, cynical, independent,” “absorb information quickly,” “wanting to change the world”–doesn’t the older generation always characterize the younger generation that way? And some of it seemed contradictory. How could this upcoming generation be both independent and eager to connect with brands? It’s because groups of people are not as monolithic as we’d like them to be, and individuals aren’t as consistent as we’d like to think we are. Very inconvenient when you’re a marketer.
The one example that made an impression on me was an anecdote the presenter related from his own experience. They were selling a lot more plants when they were artfully arranged and potted together in containers, than when they were individual plants, even though the cost of the arranged container was quite a bit more than the cost of the individual containers. He further pointed out that a young person would be more likely to throw the whole thing out when it stopped looking good. When I pondered this, I realized ever since the Depression, each generation has been better off than the previous one: This younger generation is used to replacing everything with something newer or better every few years. Do they treat plants like they treat their gadgets? But gardeners wouldn’t do that! But that’s the point. We’re not talking about gardeners. We’re talking about getting non-gardeners more interested in plants, somehow, some way. By the end of the program, I didn’t feel like I understood the upcoming generation any better, and I wasn’t sure the presenter did, either.
So I went to someone who should know. I had struck up a conversation with a marketing rep earlier in the symposium, an under-thirty woman eager to talk about plants and blogs. I strolled over to her seat and asked her if it had been an accurate presentation. She said to me, “You know when he showed the picture of his daughter’s boyfriend, and everyone laughed? I didn’t get what was so funny. He looked normal to me.” That got me to thinking. The young man in question had been slouched in front of a computer, an iPod connected to his ears, a cellphone (I think) strapped to his upper arm, a Blackberry (or similar) close by his keyboard. The presenter had made some remark like “And this is the guy my daughter wants to marry.” And yes, I had chuckled.
Why was it funny to me and not to her? Because I tapped into the unease of one’s children marrying someone–uh, that you wouldn’t pick for them. But was it the gadgets, or the slouch and general unkempt appearance that made me feel that way? If the guy had been sitting up straight, wearing a business suit, with the same gadgets, would he still have looked like a poor marriage choice to me? Probably not. But my brief conversation with the young marketing rep finally got it through my head that there were differences in the generations that even a love of gardening couldn’t obscure.
Are the differences important?
Not that there’s anything wrong with differences. But you have to see clearly what they are before you can determine if they really affect the outcome you’re concerned about. And I have to wonder if what really affects whether younger people garden is how much contact they had with plants as chlildren, either through a relative who gardened or through abundant time spent in wild spaces. You can’t miss something you’ve never known, and if even if you feel something’s not quite right about your life, how could you pin it down to a lack of gardening if you’ve never gardened? If every generation is less tied to the land than the generation before it, is that a problem? I mean, is that a problem for society as a whole? It offends our sensibilities as gardeners, but is there something inherently harmful in relegating the raising of our food to “experts,” just like we pay car mechanics to repair our cars and software engineers to create our computer programs?
I’ve been reading the posts that have been discussing the dearth of younger gardeners (see below), and while various reasons are offered, the question we’re really struggling with is not “Why aren’t there more young gardeners” but why does it matter. What we’re all wondering is what this means for our society as a whole, this shift away from contact with the natural world. For I have to agree with Bill that the statistics are misleading. When you count every homeowner that mows their lawn as a gardener, and every lawn care service as a green industry, yes, indeedy, gardening is big business. Those of us who register with blog directories or vote for blog awards know better. Gardening as we know it is a fringe interest. It rarely gets its own category. Even on Amazon it’s a subcategory of Home and Garden.
I think this is an unhealthy state of affairs. But I’m a gardener, so I’m prejudiced. But maybe I’m also right. Once those in their twenties get married, buy their house and in general get over the newness of being an adult, will more of them turn to gardening? Or is gardening only going to become increasingly the province of the experts and the eccentrics? What do you think?
Others in the Conversation
I’ve been thinking out loud here, trying to get my bearings following a conversation that’s been hopping from one blog to another. Below are the posts that I’ve found that have been pursuing this line of thought. If you know of others, please bring them to my attention.
Meâ€¦ In the mediaâ€¦ Peopleâ€¦ Bloggingâ€¦ Gardeningâ€¦ Hannah at This Garden is Illegal
Oops? Clarification… Katie at GardenPunks
Younger Gardeners-Older Gardeners Mr. Brown Thumb at Mr. Brown Thumb
Younger Garden Bloggers, Where Are You? Colleen at In the Garden Online
Garden Bloggers: Old & Young Sarah at A Gardener’s Gazette
These posts speak to other issues that have been raised in the course of this discussion.
What Makes a Gardener? Carol at May Dreams Gardens ponders what makes a gardener realize he or she is a gardener
Clueless New Yorkers Again Reporting On Stuff They Don’t Understand Michele points out that the best way to eat local is to grow local. Who do we expect to grow our food?