Is Gardening Dead?


Data from the National Gardening Association survey shows that we break out along these lines:

  • 2% of us consider ourselves Master Gardeners.
  • 7% are Garden Enthusiasts
  • 31% are Casual Gardeners
  • 23% are Reluctant Gardeners
  • 15% Just Cut the Grass
  • 23% Couldn’t Give a Damn.  (Translation:  they probably don’t even have a yard.)

They go on to dissect each group and analyze why they don’t garden more.  Although the percentages vary, it boils down to time, money, and space.  The report cites a dizzying array of information that consumers lack–information that, if only we grasped it better, would cause us to garden more.  Gardening is good exercise.  It improves our property values. It reduces stress. And crime.  It improves community connections. And the school performance of children. Oh, and I loved this one:  "There’s a study that indicates that walking in a garden helped women recover from breast cancer."

Here’s what bothers me about this stuff.  You either love gardening or you don’t.  You either laugh when a spider drops casually out of your hair as you sit pulling weeds, or you shriek in horror.  You either long to be knee-deep in a pile of aged horse manure or you hold your nose.  You either get goose bumps when you see those tiny white shoots emerging from a root crown in spring or–or you get goose bumps from something else!  I don’t think anybody ever sat down and analyzed the data about what gardening would add to their lives and made a rational decision about whether to go dig in the dirt.

But that’s just what the garden industry wants us to do.  Familiarize ourselves with the data, and then hand them our credit cards.  I read statements like this, and it just makes me want to crawl into the chicken coop and hide:  "If a box of Cheerios is good for your heart (it tells you so right on the box), why doesn’t the plant packaging say that plants and gardening can reduce stress?"

Yeah.  That’s gonna work.

Part Three:  What Now?

Make it easier.  That’s what this whole thing boils down to.  Make gardening less time-consuming.  Less confusing.  Eliminate the hard work.  Sell fool-proof plants.  Sell plants as decor, not plants.  If they think it’s decor, they’ll buy it. It’s as if making the gardening experience even more bland will somehow draw people to it.

I dunno, folks.  I want it to be tricky.  I want it to be interesting.  I’m OK if it doesn’t always work.  I’m OK with taking a while to figure something out. 

Come on.  I know some non-gardeners. I bet some of you do, too.  Would a label on a plant saying that gardening reduces stress make them go outside and start digging?  Would anything?


  1. Most non-gardeners don’t garden because they don’t enjoy it. Doing something you don’t enjoy isn’t going to reduce your stress no matter what a stupid label says.

    What makes me gag is the conclusion that gardening should be made easier, less work, less time-consuming, fool-proof plants(!), sold as “decor” not plants(!!). This is an idea that only a marketing consultant could suggest. It’s bad on so many levels – for the non-gardener, for the plants, for plant diversity, for the real gardeners who are stuck with acres of wave petunias instead of anything actually interesting. In the long run I think it will hurt the industry far more than it will help in the sort term (if it helps at all).

    Tell non-gardeners who want to enjoy the stress-reducing benefits of a garden without the work to go sit in a public park or buy a membership to a botanic garden or conservatory.

  2. This is the stuff that gives the corporate executives at Home Depot, Hines, and others sleepless nights. What does it mean to me, a small independent garden center? Nothing!

    If you are a small retailer you have to distance your self from these studies and focus on your core customer. Worrying about how to turn a twenty something into a gardener or why gardening is healthy for you is way beyond what we have time for. We am working on satisfying the approximately 15% of gardeners who frequent independent garden centers. It’s interesting that 15% is close to what the study calls Master Gardeners and Gardening Enthusiasts. Throw in a few of those Casual gardeners and we’re set.

    Let the big boys and girls at the boxes sweat how to appeal to people who just don’t want to garden. Keep the “Reluctant Gardeners”, “Just Cut the Grass”, and “Couldn’t Give a Damn” gardeners at Lowe’s. They will waste your time and never really become the customers you need to survive. There are enough of the real gardeners to keep most small garden centers going, if you just know how to reach them. Let them know that you are a real garden center that respects their intelligence and doesn’t dumb things down to try and make a sale.

    The small independent garden centers and florists that make their present customers happy enough to spread the word will be in business long after the chains and boxes have been bought out, reorganized, spun off, or whatever else they do to try and stay profitable.

  3. What Jane said, double — and Trey, too. I think the motivation for this is desire for appeal to a broader audience so as to produce greater profit. After all, most plants are “consumables” — the flashiest things at Home Depot don’t come back next year — and if you get people hooked on things they have to keep buying, it’s a steady source of profit.

    The thing is, for most people, food and health care come before gardening. The survey is ignoring the wider economic picture (stagnant wage growth, low savings rate, more people living on credit, housing market deflating) in favor of a blinkered view of what influences lawn and garden sales (matters of likes or dislikes). When the economy is good for everybody, I bet lawn and garden sales are booming.

    Personally, because I only work part-time and the garden budget is my responsibility, I’ve had to cut things out of plant purchases based on the money available. All that means is you can’t garden on an empty stomach, not that I want the “Gardening for Dummies” inflatable wildflower kit.

  4. The garden products industry commissions a marketing survey to determine how to extract more money from consumers pockets. They discover to their horror that sales are down. What years are this survey’s trends based on?

    Declining sales are not likely to have anything to do with the nature of gardening or gardeners and more to do with rising prices of all other goods and services and stagnant wages. What does the consumer give up first?

    The market analysts suggestions is to to further commodify nature and make it even more like cheap plastic decor easy for the consumer to purchase and dispose of.

    I think the solution to declining sales lies further up the food chain and consumers need to lift their gaze from perfect patented petunias before the
    23% who are Reluctant Gardeners
    15% who Just Cut the Grass
    23% who Couldn’t Give a Damn
    that constitute %61 of the populace become avid gardeners who don’t spend a dime on garden products.

  5. Interesting that the so-called decline in gardening is correlated to the urbanization of America as well as the increasing obesity of our population.

    Let’s face it you either live gardening or you don’t…passion or no passion

  6. I disagree with Richard above who says that you either live gardening or you don’t. That kind of zealous tone might certainly put some people off it.

    I do think that Lowe’s is on to something in saying that DIY is being replaced by “Do-It-For-Me”. I’m surprised to discover among younger coworkers how many of them have yard services and housekeepers. When I was growing up that was a luxury of the wealthy. While I love getting my hands dirty I seem to be in the minority. Physical labor seems to be something to be looked down on these days.

    How are the garden marketeers going to counter the stigma of physical labor? Maybe if they package it as healthy exercise instead. Or perhaps we’ll return to the suburban 1950s’ shame tactics of “keeping up with the Joneses”.

  7. I agree with the comments that spending on gardening related items may be more related to the economy than to the number of gardeners. How has the number of gardeners at the various levels changed from survey to survey? And how does that correlate to spending? Without the entire survey, as pointed out, we can only read the conclusions of others. And those conclusions come with the authors’ biases.

    My non-gardening friends and family (gasp, even in my own family there are non-gardeners) aren’t likely to substantially increase their spending for garden related items based on marketing. Their spending isn’t zero, but what they buy tends to be “do it for me” services and items. Maybe that is where the market grows.

  8. I agree with everyone’s thoughts on this. Although I don’t know if liking gardening is as cut and dry as we all think. I still believe there are plenty of people out there who cringe at the thought of getting dirty, or seeing a spider (cough-me! I went through stages throughout my life where one year I loved reading about spiders in books, then a few years later I could barely handle seeing one on television and now I’m not even that bothered by a black widow) would make them cringe, but I think those things can be learned and tolerated, as long as you are willing to.
    I also think that the ‘boxes’ (and huge companies in general) are out of touch with the people they try and market to because those types of companies become overinflated with management and marketing people who almost never have any real experience with the product they are trying to market.

    Have you ever noticed in college that many (probably most) of the business majors have no interests other than making money? I have a friend who is a business major and her mindset is basically ‘the masses are morons who must be told what to buy’. Her only interest is to hit it rich.

    It’s pretty spooky.

  9. I’m going to guess that the markeing company’s sales numbers include all lawn and gardening products, which in the past has also included lawn fertilizers, pesticides, weed ‘n’ feed, etc. Could there be some good news for the environment in the declining sales numbers?

  10. Gardening is alive and well, even in my high-rise corner of urban Seattle. There’s less than 20 sq/ft of container space, but I tend to it almost every day.

    While I may not be a master gardener, I am the master of my containerized dirt domain. I no longer have the space to naturalize and nurture, season to season, year to year, so I’ve adopted an entirely different approach to the objects of my floral infatuation.

    What were once residents are now visitors. Like most guests in your home, it’s great fun when they arrive, and it’s just fine when they leave. When the bloom is off the rose, so to speak, it’s time to bag it – literally and figuratively.

    But none of this has to do with “big boxes”, high-priced urban gardening boutiques, or MBA’s and marketeers. It has to do with dirt, seeds, starts, and squeezing in one more 6″ pot of 6 week blooming potential.

    It’s about getting dirt under my fingernails, agonizing over every bud I force myself to pinch, and snipping off the perfect bouquet, dainty as it may be, for my baby.

  11. I love the content of this blog (and commentary) even if I am regularly startled by the zealous and rightious tone of what I read here. Its worth it.

    Of course gardening is not dead. And everyone reading this blog already KNOWS it.

    I agree with Bruce. It’s about the dirt and such other magic things. This is part of the human condition. It won’t change.

    Couple of thoughts:
    1) The idea of “marketers trying to craft more targeted products to increase revenue, share and profit” is NOT a bad idea. Profit is a good thing. It is profit that pays for my garden purchases.

    2) I don’t buy the “gardening and obesity are mutually exclusive” at all… but maybe I’ve seen things others have not. Sadly.

    3) I think the most brilliant thing I’ve read today is what firefly wrote above.

    4) But let’s not confuse “gardening” with “spending money.” I spend A TON of money on my gardens. It’s my hobby. Some people eat out or drink frequently, I buy plants. But I don’t HAVE TO. I could stay busy all year with ten worth of seeds and some fertilizer (and maybe some perlite). I already have hoe, wheelbarrow and bypass shears. To me, gardening and spending, while RELATED, are not the same.

  12. Well, we just need a gardening minister, the Billy Graham of gardening to say, “People, there is JOY in this! People there is faith! People there is love, and people it is not hard!”

    II was not born a gardener–I was saved at age 33.

    I think people just don’t know how wonderful gardening is. Certainly, those Big Box stores with their mile-high piles of Grubs-B-Gone don’t make gardening seem very joyful–though, Trey, the independent nurseries near me certainly do.

    Anyway, I feel we should all be telling our neighbors that gardening is great.

  13. I feel just as you do – let it be tricky – let it be creative…. Its unfortunate you can’t control the Adsense ads on your blog! Its advertising package deals!!! yikes.

    I am one of those Master Gardeners noted in the report. I see myself on the creative side of gardening. This Spring, I’m planning on growing a sunflower playhouse/fort for my grandchildren.

    Arlene Bow

  14. Practically speaking I have no real need to get gardening directly – but that doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about it. I am very passionate about the aims and the results that my garden brings. My native hedge provides a habitat for well over 6 times more invertibrates than if I had used a more exotic plant. My garden has provided 25 different vegetables over this year – and many tasty meals. I have just been out today and seen a sparrowhawk swoop within 10 metres of where I was stood. The evening in my garden shared with 6 other people listening to two types of bat on the bat monitor is unbeaten and the fact that I compost my waste with Bokashi, with worms and with heat gives me great satisfaction.
    I dont love gardening, but I LOVE my garden.

  15. This is a very interesting discussion, and the results of the quoted survey expose an interesting trend in our societies. I believe on of the big things stopping people from spending more time gardening, and spending more on gardening, is that they just don’t have the time any more.

    However, at least here in Australia, there seems to be an amazing increase in the number of large retailers supplying an amazing range of gardening and hardware goods and a dramatic increase in the “backyard blitz” type programs on TV would seem to indicate that at the very least people want to get out there and build outdoor enviornments that improve there lives. They may not be building the “traditional” garden, or an organic garden or a wildlife garden, but they are out there, and I think regardless what the retailers say, people will still want to “improve” there environments.

  16. I managed to hook a coworker on gardeneing last year. You get them to try it and poof! they are hooked. That said, I try to spend as little as possibel on gardening. start seeds make my own compost, it just kills me to spend buttloads of money on some plant. so Im tight. And I’ll be darned if Im gonna make the box guys richer when they doont get it and dont cater to me. In august they were done! no compost no peat no grass seed. they are idiots is why they are losing business. Maybe they will wise up.

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