Gardening has always been part of America's heritage. It may be said that much of the growth, prosperity, and success we've achieved as a nation can be due to our strong agricultural and horticultural roots. But we're in danger of losing that vital connection with the land and with our identity.
Each year, the National Gardening Association (NGA) publishes a survey of lawn and garden trends in the United States. In 2005, participation in gardening was at an all-time high - 83% of all U.S. households participated in one or more types of do-it-yourself indoor and outdoor lawn and garden activities - but the number of younger gardeners (18-34 years old) continued to lag. In our most recent survey, What Gardener's Think, we found that just 1 out of 3 people in this age group consider themselves a gardener.
Traditionally, people in this age group are least likely to participate in gardening activities, usually because many don't yet own homes or have space to garden, and they have other life priorities such as careers and young families. What's troubling is that these "children of the baby boomers" are largest segment (more than 34 million households) of U.S. household population, so unless they have a change of heart as they get older, interest and participation in gardening may decline in the future.
So what's fueling this lack of interest in gardening among the younger generation? I believe it can be traced to their roots. Far fewer members of this younger generation have personal connections to our nation's agrarian past. When I was growing up my grandfather had a farm, and many people my age and older speak nostalgically of exciting summers visiting their uncle's or grandmother's farm. But as the number of farms continues to decline across the country and urban and suburban populations swell, younger people are less exposed to nature, agrarian lifestyles, and the experience of growing plants. Lacking this positive exposure during youth, they're less likely to create their own gardens.
There's still hope - if you can't bring kids to the garden, bring the garden to the kids! There is a growing movement across the country to restore gardens, plants, and green spaces to urban and suburban areas. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of farmer's markets in the United States increased 111% (to more than 3,700). There are more than 1,000 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms across the United States and Canada. Community gardens are continuing to prosper and interest in school gardening is rising. And while only 16% of households with kids under 18 at home garden with their kids, 97% (an estimated 107 million U.S. households) believe schools should provide gardens and hands-on gardening activities for kids.
Parents and educators are realizing the importance of maintaining this vital link with the land. But gardening in schools is more than just making kids aware of our national heritage. Children who participate in school gardening programs often do better academically, develop better attitudes towards nutritious foods and exercise, and acquire life skills such as cooperation, leadership, and a sense of responsibility.
Parents, grandparents, neighborhood volunteers, and teachers can take the initiative in their communities to introduce gardening to kids at home, at school, and in community gardens. NGA directly supports youth garden efforts in a couple of ways.
The Adopt a School Garden? program allows individuals, organizations and corporations to make donations that go toward the purchase of garden supplies and curricula, and funds organizational and educational consulting services from NGA staff. Anyone can register a garden for adoption, and contributors can select a specific school to receive funds.
Through garden grant programs, supported by lawn and garden industry sponsors, NGA annually distributes hundreds of awards to worthy schools, community groups, and child-centered gardening programs. Over the past 23 years these grants have helped more than 1.2 million children experience the benefits garden through these grant programs.
Youth gardens provide a great opportunity to talk about family history, childhood, cultural heritage, and to create those gardening memories that will remain with children as they grower older, so they too can pass the tradition of gardening to their kids.