Guest Rant: Gen Y Speaks Out



Y'all welcome 23 year-old Isabel Hardman of Fennel and Fern, the oh-so-stylish British garden blog.

When I was sixteen, my best friend discovered I had a terrible secret. My mother let it slip one night on the phone, and the next day it was spreading round the school. For years I had kept it quiet: I was a keen gardener.

You can conjecture all you like about the challenges facing the GenY gardener, but as a 23-year-old who has kept silent about her beloved pastime for so long, I’m pretty certain the main problem isn’t space or money: it’s gardening itself. Gardening is just not cool.

I know gardening has come a long way over the past year and a bit. It’s actually quite trendy to have a couple of tomato plants by your back step now. But admit to anything more serious than a fleeting interest in growing a few leaves of rocket, and you’ll find yourself the subject of serious mockery.

Take my husband. A year ago, he had only ever heard of a rhododendron, yet had no idea what one looked like. But when we bought a house with a garden, he was slowly sucked in to growing and nurturing. Even though he will happily spend an hour collecting manure for our compost heap, or deadheading flowers, he still can’t admit he is a gardener. When he asked for a rare magnolia cultivar for his birthday, he pleaded with me not to tell his friends. Gardening is just not cool.

GenYs feel this when they walk into a garden centre and find themselves surrounded by older women in pastel raincoats, buying impossibly expensive jams and ‘spirit of the panpipes’ CDs. They feel it when a retired gardener on their allotment site tells them he picks the caterpillar eggs off his kale individually every day. The world of gardening we enter still has too many trugs, too many his’n’hers wellies and too much pointless, expensive guff for us to feel entirely at home.

And all too often, we don’t feel welcome in this world. My next door neighbour spent six months telling me my organic gardening methods would fail, that my carrots wouldn’t germinate, and that growing veg was just too hard for someone as young and silly as me. It’s strange that as I harvest my pumpkins and carry armfuls of lettuce up to my kitchen, he has fallen silent. When we watch gardening programmes, we are patronised and fed terrible jokes by wooden presenters. We can’t identify with these people, and so we pretend we’re not part of their world.

A year ago, I started because I realised gardeners of my age had no-one telling them it was ok to run an allotment when you work a 50 hour week. Or that you don’t need to buy a Victorian glass cloche to feel content: in fact, your student debt will thank you if you don’t. I love reading inspirational blogs by women who work from home, but I can’t identify with the world they inhabit. In winter, I see my garden in the light only at weekends, and when I arrive home late from work, find myself harvesting raspberries in the dark.

And that’s fine. I love gardening. I love my life, and I love my job. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the gardening world expects me to be a yummy mummy with oodles of cash, and the rest of the world expects me to have a garden full of weeds and no interest in working with plants. I don’t fit into either world, and neither do other GenYs. We’re still waiting to find our place.


  1. Lovely post Isabel. Like I said in the last Gen Y gardener dust up, gardeners are an odd and rare lot. Get used to it. In no time you will not care what anyone else thinks. The satisfaction you get from gardening will overwhelm the nattering noise from the disconnected.

  2. Hello fellow GenYer! My experience mirrors yours in many ways (down to the husband that finds himself enjoying gardening but prefers to call it “yardwork”).

    I suppose that I am lucky in that in the DC area, there seems to be quite the young gardener movement so I don’t feel quite so alone. I usually the uncoolest person in the room, so I am already used to that! 😛

  3. Don’t “wait” to find your place.

    Make your place and avoid the pitfalls of being placed in those little boxes and be “tout tout la memme” that marketers try forcing upon everyone.

    The TROLL

  4. Katy, thanks for mentioning the young gardener movement coz I’m seeing it everywhere – at least in the U.S.
    So Isabel, there ISN’T one in the U.K.? I’m puzzled.

  5. Thanks for the insight, Isabel. Gardening does suffer from an image problem, but the sheer joy of growing and working with plants often trumps it all. I’m a a GenXer, and I do find that older gardeners are occasionally partonizing–I suspect they mean well, but can’t seem to help themselves.

    However, I think experienced gardeners of all ages can patronize or be clique-ish, and that’s more of a personality than generational thing.

  6. All that junk you mentioned us older generation gardeners need? That is the result of the business world trying to make money off us. I am a gardening snob and turn up my nose at those gardeners that need all the latest and greatest gadgets and fru-frus.

  7. I have to say that your post kind of pisses me off. To relegate a whole generation to fustiness and materialism is ageist and completely unfounded.

    As with any pursuit, you will find those that share your style and those that don’t – age is pretty much irrelevant. Some of the older gardeners I know are some of the coolest people on the planet – wise, interesting, funny and tolerant. They would no sooner buy matching Wellies than fly.

    I’m really getting annoyed with the polarizing of generations – on both sides. Let’s just shut up and grow stuff.

  8. Isabel, great to have you! I think it’s fair to say that everybody here at the Rant is put off by the way gardening is marketed. The general assumption is that you are an idiot more interested in resin bunny statues–or lethal chemicals–than in the miracle of nature.

    If anything, the literature of gardening, with rare exceptions, is even worse. Most books and magazines talk to their audience as if it is nothing but a bunch of extremely shockable old ladies who’d die if there were a hint of controversy or politics or dirt anywhere. (Although we ALWAYS find the British versions a little franker!)

    Ignore the nattering. You’ll find your fellows somewhere. And they won’t necessarily be your age. When I started gardening in my early 30s, I was completely inspired by my friends Bob and Gerald, who were then in their early 60s. But just as hip as could be–great vegetable gardeners, total paragons of taste who’d made the most beautiful garden in the world with very little money, and fantastic cooks and hosts who’d feed you first and then show you an Almodovar movie after.

  9. Perhaps all the GenY gardener rants will get publishers and producers to pay attention. We might soon be seeing books geared specifically towards GenY gardeners. Perhaps they can do for gardening what “Stitch and Bitch” did for knitting a few years back. Make it OK to admit you are one.

  10. I’m a GenY gardener too — and it is sometimes strange. When I was 16 I was on all sorts of mailing lists for gardening catalogs, and one of them sold my name and I started getting junk mail selling… retirement homes. Not for my parents, for me. Because, obviously, anyone buying plants must be getting near retirement.
    But I think it is starting to change. I know a lot of young gardeners — and a lot of gardeners who may be older than me but are certainly young and very hip. When a nursery like Plant Delights can be successful with a catalog packed with political humor and references to the phallic nature of emerging aloe flowers I think fustiness in the garden is moving out.

  11. Kerry M – I agree with you wholeheartedly. Putting people into age boxes and labelling them drives me crazy. I don’t and haven’t ever fitted into a box and don’t intend to try. Gardeners are gardeners of whatever age and more strength to their assorted trowels and spades.

  12. I’m glad to hear you’re still in there swinging. TV presenters are always wooden and nobody likes the stupid jokes–you’re not in the minority there. And there will always be nay-sayers and folks trying to get your dollar (or pound or euro) by trying to sell you crap you don’t need. The one benefit you will find to getting older is that you won’t care if someone thinks what you’re doing isn’t cool. Don’t like my clothes? Don’t care. Don’t like my choice of flower/fruit/veggie? Don’t care. Think I should spread 4 metric tons of high-test herbicide to get rid of the weeds instead of vinegar and hand-weeding? Really, I just don’t care.

    Always be open to advice–sometimes it actually *is* good; but the next time someone wants to sneer at your methods or your husband’s wanting a magnolia, look them in the eye and tell them, “Don’t care.” and do what you want.

  13. Thank you! I totally identify with you and have for a long time myself fended off judgemental comments about my interest in growing. I hate those questions that go ..”gardening!?.. but what do you really like to do”, as if this couldn’t be a hobby for me. I can as easily wear high heels as wellies and do hold down a job as a CEO, as well as dig deep holes and spread the manure. Love it, and love your blog! Best wishes, and thanks again. Helen

  14. I’m pretty sure that the reason for the image of the current gardener is due to the marketing as has been mentioned. The image is created because the largest gardening demographic is what it is: female, older than me, with more money than me, and more interest in annuals than vegetables and perennials (although that is changing).
    As a young male gardener, I have experienced some derision or odd looks due to participating in something that is not traditionally associated with the young hip male. However, I’ve definitely found that both vegetable and perennial gardening can be successfully marketed to my age group of both genders, and that I have gained a lot of respect from others due to my pursuit of biological knowledge and horticulture skills. Girls love when I bring them home-grown bouquets, and guys love it when I bring them tomato. I feel a change in the wind though, and I think that the marketing is going to be changing (I already am seeing a change in the inventory of gardening stores).

  15. I’m with Kerry here too. I’m a Gen Y gardener and I feel like the worst thing we can do is continue to declare and nurture a separation between generations.

    Sure our experiences may be different, but I’ve learned from gardeners of all ages, and taught things to gardeners of all ages as well. Enjoy gardeners as individuals. Lumping them in groups according to age or income is incredibly foolish and you’ll be the one to lose out on learning and sharing with them.

  16. Hey guys, thanks for all the feedback on the post. I’m more used to gushing about passionflowers and ruby chard, so writing a rant was exciting new territory!
    Just to be clear, I have nothing against older gardeners! I would have killed many, many more plants if it hadn’t been for the sage advice of over-60s throughout my adolescence. And one of my favourite activities is talking about my plans for the garden with my 85 year-old grandfather-in-law. I’m not so naïve a twenty-something to believe I have all the answers and am totally sorted (far from it). And my point was more the way marketing has lumped gardeners into one big pastel-pan-pipe scary bracket, when actually GenYs are trying to push their way through (in a furtive, embarrassed sort of way). But thanks again for your comments – it’s good to know there are other gardeners out there who pick spinach in stilettos!

  17. Wow, that is an incredibly sad statement on the youth of today.
    I had no idea that gardening was considered uncool.
    You wouldn’t know it here in California but I guess we are a bit unusual here, especially here in N. California where mountain biking, surfing and outdoor activities including gardening , even if it is to grow a few cannabis along with your bananas.

    When did it become so uncool ?
    When I was in my 20’s I was surrounded by friends who were into ( some of them were rabid ! ) horticulture, then again I was attending college in landscape architecture and horticulture so I guess that makes some impact.

    Sorry to hear that Britain is a tough place to enjoy gardening in a social setting.

  18. I do agree with some of your points.. but there does seem to be a sizeable group of us young gardeners up in Manchester, and we’ve certainly found our place.

    Having been part of a regular local plant swap, I’ve held many conversations with gardeners both young and old, and I wouldn’t be keen to generalise on people’s gardening habits based on age.

    Rather than compare GenY/GenX vs older generations, I’d be more inclined to notice differences between organic and non-organic folks..

  19. Is there ANY way to discuss this topic without making unpleasant (and largely untrue) generalizations about either side of this age gap? Is it possible?

    I’m wincing at the pastel raincoat and New Age CD comments. And not because they fit.

    I think what we have here are people who grow vegetables or don’t grow them, who have money or don’t have money, etc. But these things are not necessarily age-related.

  20. I’m an obsessed boomer gardener and sci fi fan who has gone through many nerdy phases in my life (starting with folk music and dinosaurs in grade school), many of which still persist. I love the “don’t care” comment. Sci fi writer Neal Stephenson once wrote something to the effect that real sci fi fans don’t care what critics say because they’ve long since come to terms with their own dorkiness. And as a boomer, I’d just like to say that the boomers I know, gardeners or not, are highly resistant to mass marketing, love to “do it ourselves” and have amazing tolerance for people gardening (or doing anything else) any way they like.

  21. I am one of the older gardeners and i think its great that there is a “gen y” around helping younger people get interested in gardening. All gardeners young and old should be putting an effort into getting the younger set interested in gardening.

    Have a great day,

  22. So I’m 40 now, and when I started gardening at about the age of 25, it never occurred to me to wonder who else was gardening or how old they might be. I didn’t really think of myself as a young person or a Gen Xer–if anything, I felt like I had just reached “adulthood,” a broad age group that extended from, say, mid-twenties through to retirement age. I knew other gardeners who were clearly also “adults” but I didn’t really stop to wonder whether they were in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, whatever.

    I could see how someone who, for instance, had a baby at 21 might feel out of place if all the other mothers in the community were 35. Clearly the experience of parenting might be different depending on what stage of your life you’re in, and it might be nice to know some other 21 year-old mothers.

    But gardening? I don’t know, it just never occurred to me to connect that with my age and to go on to feel one way or another about it.

    Also–there’s a lot of talk about “how do we get these young people to garden?” and I’ve gotta say, it really doesn’t matter to me whether anyone else gardens, regardless of their age.

    I mean, there’s an obvious financial angle to this–the gardening industry needs customers, and the more customers they have the better their selection will be when I show up, but beyond that? Sure, it’s good for your health, good for the planet, but so are a lot of things.

    Maybe I’m just not a recruiter. I mean, I do yoga every day, but I don’t feel the need to talk other people into doing it.

  23. Great post, Isabel! I’m a GenY gardener who began growing flowers at the tender age of 5, and I know what it’s like to have others from our generation look at you like you have three heads, and that it is equally uncomfortable to be patronized by the older generations. I think it’s great that gardeners our age are beginning to speak up and become an active part of the gardening and horticultural world, and eventually we will make it cool in our own way. Besides, before we know it we’ll be the older generation harping about “these kids today!”

  24. i have to say, though i like this post and it has some valid points, that as a rabid generation y garden enthusiast i haven’t met with much opposition. especially now, there’s a ton of people our age (i am also 23) who are crazy about organic gardening, farming, etc. LOTS of us, at least here in the US. even here in boise, idaho, there’s a TON of interest.

    i like the don’t care comment, too… the important thing is to grow plants. however you do it. if it works, or even if it doesn’t, who the hell cares?

  25. I am GenY. At 25 I have an experiemental “urban micro farm” in Austin Texas. I have yet to produce much but the yeild is bountiful when it comes to learning. I am really glad to see other “stylish gardeners” in their 20-somethings. I look forward to following you in the future.

    BTW – There are more GenY garden types than you think. There are a ton of us in Austin, many of us are learning more and more about permaculture as well! Keep up the good work!

  26. I have to agree, as a Gen X/Gen Y cusp gardener, that I’ve had many more people, regardless of age, show interest and support for the gardens we’ve put in our yard than show any derision. I suppose that’s a self-selected group of opinions – my wife and I both work in the environmental field and I doubt we’d be friends with people that don’t like plants!

    However, the one place I see a generational gap, and the one thing that REALLY bothers me about gardening culture, is when educational and community programs are offered. It seems that everything substantial is offered during the day on weekdays. This espeically applies to local garden club meetings/tours/events and Master Gardener classes. Offering programs in this way is going to self-select for gardeners who are older, stay-at-home parents, or independently wealthy. I mean, how many people have jobs that will allow them to 12 consecutive Fridays off from work to take Master Gardener classes? That’s a full year’s worth of vacation for most young people! Luckily, some of the larger institutions in our area, like the NY Botanical Garden, offer night classes ($$$) and programs on the weekend, but it would be nice to be able to connect with our local gardening community.

  27. It does seem a bit strange all this emphasis on different generational approaches to gardening, I just don’t see it here in northern California, either, where so many people appreciate gardens even if they don’t garden, and eccentricities in hobbies of all types are the norm. Maybe we Californians are the new English?

    I seem to remember my feelings about differences in generations and gardens/gardening more along the lines of differences in styles; that rock garden plants were more old school, while an interest in tropicals or California natives or South African/Australian plants was more cutting edge and less stuffy. Over the next few decades I have come to appreciate that a lot of my ideas were the folly of being young, and thinking that we were the center of our own universe and exploring new territory. It has come to me with more experience that there are no really new trends in gardening or design, and what may in fact have seemed new, had in fact already been introduced and explored by other fanatical gardeners much my senior. I find myself relating more to other gardeners of all ages who share my varied interests in gardening, rather than what generation they come from. I also find I have more in common with a younger garden enthusiast who is intellectually curious and doesn’t reject advice simply because it comes from someone who is older.

    GenX, GenY, Babyboomer, PostWW2ers, if they share my own interests or are interesting gardeners with something original to say, I enjoy them all, and learn from them all, as who can possible be an expert in everything?

    I’d suggest that we create a lot of our own barriers in life, and make assumptions of others that don’t pan out with more interaction, and why not approach gardening as if it were an art form or personal expression, or simply a way to be more in touch with nature on a daily basis, or even something you do for future generations to appreciate, as when you plant a small tree that may take 50 years to be something impressive.

  28. I, too, am a GenY-er, apparently. Most of the time, the older generations have been encouraging to me and my vegetable pursuits. But not always. I can attest to the occasional discouragement from the “chemical generation”. Some of the older folks don’t even know what organic means. They seem to believe it is some “new fangled” hippy thing. When really…it’s old as dirt – literally.

  29. I’m a 46-year-old gardener/garden designer, and I’m seeing a lot of people in their 20s getting into gardening around here, and not just for fun. I know several GenYers who have started their own landscape companies, and the ideas they have are incredible. Plus, for the last 3 summers, my personal helpers have been 21-year-old women who can’t wait to get dirt under their fingernails every day.

    Of course, I live in Austin, TX, home of the hippie rebel granola head organic “Keep Austin Weird” environment. That and Dell. Go figure.

  30. I don’t know people who would make fun of others because of their hobbies, certainly not friends that would do so.

    I think you spend less time worrying about what everyone else thinks and do what you love.

    Even as a teenager I’ve never understood the pretending people do about themselves and their lives.

  31. You make the perfect point about who are the people that garden and produce the food we eat. Sandor Katz author of “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved”, made a similar point about farmers in America. If we (as Americans) continue to think of farmers as that sweet mid-aged caucasian man, then we are losing out on the vast potential people that could provide us with healthy, GM free, non-corporate produced food. The gardening industry needs to wake-up and recognize that we come in all shapes, races, genders, sexual orientations and ages.

  32. Over 25 years ago, my next door neighbor also spent most of his time in my presence telling me how my organic methods will fail. I brushed it off and went about my business.

    Now where the hell did I put that damn pan pipe CD?

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