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Gen-X Gardening (a manifesto?)

Time magazine did a special this week on organic gardening and my favorite local nursery, Natural Gardener. The article and video concerns the trends that are happening in the younger generation with gardening, as a part of a “New Frugality” series. This was the place that really inspired me to garden. More than just a nursery, it’s a wonderful place to spend a morning with coffee in hand. There are a number of display gardens and it really shows off what one can do in the Hill Country near Austin with its rocky limestone soils and wizened junipers.

Since I have started going to the Natural Gardener, they’ve changed their look a few times, expanding the grounds. I do miss the huge fruit orchard, some of which was replaced by a xeriscape display garden. I like xeriscape as an idea but also it has an underlying aesthetic which is a little too intentionally Buddhist-minimalistic for me. I am all for the wild and natural look. It’s fun to walk through their Butterfly garden, especially in late summer when the cannas and mistflowers and zinnias are covered with a rainbow of fluttering life and then sneak back into the pathway that leads toward the teepee–an area which is all wild cactus and native flowers–an area which is totally uncultivated and gives you a raw idea of what the land actually looks like there. There has been so much development of refined landscapes and homes in the Hill Country in the last decade that it’s easy to forget how wild and untamed (and desert-y at times) that land actually is.

The Natural Gardener calls itself “organic gardening headquarters” and offers classes and workshops, and the staff there is incredibly passionate and knowledgable about gardening. The don’t just sell stuff, they are gardening outside there every day. I see the Natural Gardener as one of the best examples of the Baby Boomer generation offering its knowledge to younger people. It is a very local, unique expression of the ways one can garden in Austin. The owner John Dromgoole is the sort of Texan that came of age in Austin in the 60s and 70s, a little hippie, a little soft around the edges, but definitely Texan in that I suspect he has “ranch” somewhere in his background. He reminds me of a good friend of mine–kind and concerned, and authentic in his own spirituality. My friend, who I’ll call O., raised his young family on a hippie commune and then in his 40s and 50s went on to start a house community, inviting a rotating cast of Gen-xers to live with them and experience some of what they did in their youth. I was one of those 20-somethings that lived with them for a time.

The big difference between my generation and the Boomers is that most of us didn’t grow up on farms. The Boomers are the post-war generation that remembers a more rural style of living; if they didn’t live it their parents did. And even if they sometimes reacted to what they perceived as society’s more institutional lifestyles, they still had an understanding of those lifestyles. My generation, on the other hand, couldn’t tell a Miracle-Gro bottle from a compost pile. Statistically, we were and are a much more urban-driven generation and grew up in the suburbs where maybe at best we watched our parents tend a lawn.

My father, for example, grew up on a sprawling farm. His father had horses, cows, ponies, pigs, four barns, dug-out fishing ponds that he stocked every year. And this was all in an suburb just miles outside of Detroit. By the time I was a teenager, that entire area was developed as a General Motors suburb, and the memory of it having been a farm long gone. My grandfather farmed because he had to and because it is just the thing one did. Having chickens and goats wasn’t just for the rural people, it was for anyone. He had a day job on the assembly line and in the rest of his life was a farmer. My father didn’t have to make that choice. And I am nowhere near having to make that choice. My in-laws both grew up with homesteading parents in the South. They no longer farm either, but live in a beautiful home near downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

And for some strange reason, our parents didn’t really pass on the gardening know-how to us; it is like a distant memory for them. I find that this is pretty typical in my generation, and we are having to re-discover gardening on our own. We don’t have the same reasons for doing it, but we do want to reclaim something that has been lost. This brings me back to the Boomers. They DO remember, but they also have a different philosophy–organic, sustainable, etc.–behind their gardening impulses than that of my parents. My parents didn’t need a philosophy to garden: it is just something one does.

The Boomer philosophy is evident everywhere if you really look. But what about us? Or the even younger people? I really think we have to re-define it on our own terms. What I appreciate about John Dromgoole’s approach is that he seems to be listening. He is parenting the gardening world, and he is parenting us, but with a gentle hand. In the Time Magazine video, he explains that most of the people in our generation are interested in vegetable gardening. With the current economic climate, and the threats of drought, we want to be able to create and provide our own food.

The gardening world is concerned with how to “reach” the younger generations, because, as they’ve rightly guessed, we just don’t have the same motivations or knowledge our parents did. Teaching about vegetable gardening is one way because locally-grown food is more important to us than ever.

I would suggest that the larger approach to teaching us should be to Keep It Creative. My generation values authenticity. We like stories. We learn from blogs (and not corporate ones, but usually a personal story), and make up things like “Guerilla Gardening”. We are pretty tribal in our approach to gardening, we learn from friends and sometimes learn things backwards. We have no idea where snapdragons come from. Tell us stories about their wild habitat in Israel, with pictures. We don’t know the Latin names. Tell us stories about botanists who hunted down wild lilies in China and how the names came from that. We are interested in heirlooms because there’s something about reclaiming the past that interests us. Tell us how to hybridize our own plants. Farmers did this all the time, why can’t we?

It was telling that the same Time article included a link to an “avant-garde gardening” photo essay, that those interested in the new generational spending impulses would also appreciate the interaction between conceptual art and gardens. Being creative doesn’t just mean design-branding but actual authentic artistic expression. We work in creative industries, are the most artistically, information-driven generation ever (and the ones that follow even more so). Fine artists and storytellers need to be integrated into the gardening world. Where are the Gertrude Jeckylls of my generation?

If, for example, you are selling seeds that were raised and collected in California, tell us why. Use a local artist to paint these wonderful plants, and tell us stories about these flowers, right on the package. We like boutiques, not malls. This message about creativity is important I think because so much of the gardening approach remains so bland and driven by the practical metaphors of previous generations. Why are tomato cages so boring? Or rainwater barrels (I mean, c’mon, black plastic ugly barrels)? I’m not talking about product design but about integrating creativity and fun into gardening–hire more artists for your company. They will bring it to life.

More importantly, I want to mention a caution. We are driven by different passions than the Boomers. We don’t have as much of a “got to get ourselves back to the garden” thing. We do want to be funky and fun and true to who we are. We value authentic, one-of-a-kind expression. We are learning, slowly. We need to be encouraged to do it on our own way, while learning old, lost wisdom along the way. We have enough pressures as it is–economic worries, general political anxieties–and to put us under some religious pressure to “garden for the future or else everything will be destroyed” will only heighten our anxiety and take the true joy out of learning. Gardening should not be a place of existential struggle; it is hard enough to tend the earth and requires patience. I have several friends who are wracked with guilt if they don’t recycle every last scrap of their unused waste. I find this pressure too much to bear when I am gardening. What comes out of joy and personal expression will last a lifetime, and we will pass that onto our children, who might become the wisest gardeners ever.