You know the expression “women of a certain age”? Well, gardeners tend to be people of a certain age – whether you call them baby boomers, empty nesters or something else.

Millennials – a term used for people who became adults early in the new millennium – have been slow to take up gardening, flower gardening, at least.

Tom Estabrook of Estabrook’s Farm and Garden Center in Yarmouth and Kennebunk said in his experience people don’t garden much until they reach their mid-30s. “It’s because of the economy,” he theorized. “Most of them have not acquired a decent job. They have a lot of bills from college, and they’re still renting.”

Once they settle down and start to have children, he thinks they’ll take up gardening.

Maybe. Others, Shawn Brannigan of Allen Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth among them, wonder if they’ll find the time. Parents are so busy – with their jobs, with driving their children to a slew of activities like soccer, basketball, horseback riding – that they lack the time to garden, he says.

Here’s my idea for enticing them into the garden: so many young adults are concerned about the environment, try teaching them about native plants that can help pollinators. If you can sweeten the deal with a pre-planted pot of flowers to put on their deck, your case may be even stronger.

Vegetable gardening, however, is a different (and more hopeful) story. A study released last year last year by the National Gardening Association said that since 2008 more millennials have been growing their own food. The study showed that 35 percent of all households in America, or 42 million households, are growing at least some food at home or in a community garden, a figure that’s up 17 percent in five years. And the largest increases are among younger households, up 63 percent to 13 million since 2008.

It may be no coincidence that the period studied began when the economy collapsed, and people were trying to save money however they could. But that wasn’t the sole motivation for millennials, according to the study. The current enthusiasm for local food has also played a major role in the renewed interest in vegetable gardening, it said. Young people want to eat locally produced food. Well, nothing is more local than your own backyard.

Brannigan, whose company specializes in vegetable seeds, said he saw a jump in sales in 2008, among both millennials and older gardeners. “It really climbed for two years and then leveled off,” he said, adding that it has not dipped to the before-2008 levels.

Marjorie Stone oversees the rental of garden plots at the Yarmouth Community Garden, which are mostly used for growing vegetables. Contrary to any trends of young folks and vegetable gardens, she said that most of the current renters are empty-nesters, including five families who have had plots for years. A number of young families have rented plots, but gave up after a year, she said.

Stone, Brannigan and Estabrook all credited the growth of school garden programs – and farm camps such as one held at Yarmouth Community Gardens – with creating a new generation of vegetable gardeners. But there is no guarantee they will continue to garden when they reach adulthood, as I can attest from personal experience.

My wife, Nancy, and I are, as readers of this column know, ardent gardeners. Our daughter, Tandy, who lives in South Portland, always tells people that we had her out in the garden so often as a kid that she learned to dislike it. When I told her I was going to write about that in this column, she admitted that maybe she would have disliked gardening anyway, and we had nothing to do with it.

Nancy and I never thought we worked our kids too hard. We didn’t ask them to do tedious chores like weeding. We did have the children do a lot of picking, though, and one year Tandy helped pick such a bountiful crop of strawberries, for a while she said she no longer liked strawberries. Thankfully, that phase has passed. Now that she’s married with teenagers of her own and a house with flower gardens, she tells me she wishes her flower beds looked better but she has other priorities. She says she may do some gardening once her children leave home. Or she may sell her house and move into a condo and not garden at all.

Our son, Zachary, who lives in a bungalow on a 40-by-80-foot lot in Medford, Massachusetts, is more of a gardener than his sister. He takes good care of the shrubs and perennials on his lot, and when he first bought the house, he created a small plot for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash.

Now that his children are 8 and 6, he still tends the ornamentals. The vegetable plot, however, is filled with cucumbers or squash – he isn’t sure which – self-seeded from the crops he never had time to harvest last fall. He didn’t have time to plant anything this spring, either. It isn’t a coincidence that his children have become involved in any number of activities – soccer, swimming, rock-climbing, parkour (running over an obstacle course), Scouts.

I sometimes wish our children did more gardening, but different generations do different things. My father was an auto mechanic, but I soon learned that if I tried to fix anything on our vehicles I did more damage than good. We have a good mechanic on speed dial.

Meanwhile, our 6-year-old grandson James spent a week with us earlier this month. He enjoyed picking both sugar snap and English peas, eating raw about half of what he picked. For some reason, he doesn’t like cooked peas. He arrived a little late for strawberry season in our garden, but he picked three pints of raspberries all on his own – not counting those he ate while picking – and he was pleased to take some home with him to Massachusetts.

We won’t force him to do anything. When he gets older, we want him to love gardening like we do. But we gladly welcome him – and our other grandchildren – into the garden at any time.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]


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