This time of year, the rewards of gardening overflow – ripe tomatoes and peppers on the kitchen counter, the seven species of butterflies that visited the butterfly bush in a single morning, the pair of goldfinches pecking at seeds on the drooping heads of sunflowers.
To those who garden, not gardening seems unthinkable. But the fact is, many people don’t garden. And for those in the horticulture industry that’s a problem.
Enter Manchester University’s Joe Messer, a marketing professor with a love of flowers and a business and family background in growing plants – and someone who asked a recent class of seniors to develop a research project in conjunction with the nonprofit National Gardening Bureau in Chicago on why people shy away from growing things.
For the business-minded students, the project was as much about developing market-research skills as about the results, Messer says. But some findings did surprise him – and even officials at the gardening bureau, an entity which aims to increase interest in gardening among Americans.
For example, Messer says, the organization expected the work would confirm conventional wisdom that younger people would be less likely to be interested in gardening than their elders. But the students found that wasn’t true.
What we found was that there was no age group that was least likely to garden, Messer says. They (students) found that among younger people, the desire was high – it actually was higher than anybody, even me, expected.
And, while one might think fewer people would garden in a less affluent neighborhood than a more affluent one, that didn’t turn out to be the case either, according to one team of student researchers.
There was no measurable difference in the two areas, but in the less affluent areas, people tended to have maybe a pot of petunias on the porch, while the others had more elaborate displays, Messer says.
So what were the reasons people cited for not getting their hands dirty? Actually, not liking to get dirty was one of them, Messer says, but not cited often.
Sixty percent of responses centered on three reasons: lack of time, lack of knowledge and lack of space, students reported.
Some of the more intriguing findings elaborated on the second reason – what some might call the intimidation factor.
Those who don’t garden, Messer says, apparently are often confused by the language used to sell and teach about plants, he says. For example, many gardening guides use USDA Climate Zones to explain which plants will grow in a given geographic region. But students working with a focus group found that not a single person knew what the zones were.
It’s like the industry speaks one language and the customers speak another. If we’re interested in making it easier for customers (to garden), then we have to learn to speak the customers’ language, Messer says.
Second, lack of knowledge apparently morphs easily into fear. People frequently said the reason they didn’t garden was that they were afraid of failure.
They don’t want to fail, and when their plant starts to die, they don’t go back to the person who led them into gardening (for information about why) because they don’t want them to know they’re a failure, Messer explains.
For somebody who gardens a lot, a plant dying isn’t a failure – it’s no big deal. It’s just part of life. But if you’ve never gardened before, failure is a big thing, and the younger they (respondents) were, the more likely they were if they felt they’d failed to say they didn’t want to garden anymore.
Among people younger than 30 who didn’t garden, many said that no one in their family taught them how, Messer says. People that age who did garden mentioned experience gardening at a young age, an interest in the natural environment or the desire to grow their own food.
People over 50 were most likely to garden for the relaxation and socialization with other gardeners, while people 30 to 49 said they gardened to improve the appearance or value of their homes, surveyors found.
All groups often cited lack of time as a reason for not gardening, with lack of space being an issue more for the elder gardeners.
Messer says as part of their project, students were also challenged to come up with ways to overcome the reasons people didn’t garden.
For the lack of time objection, they suggested encouraging people to grow a few plants indoors before attempting an outdoor garden, gardening in containers, quick-turn-around plants such as herbs and introducing people to tools such as self-watering and self-fertilizing systems.
Vertical and container gardening and community gardening were suggested as ways to overcome space limitations.
For those grappling with a lack of knowledge, students suggested that grandparents should be enlisted to teach children about gardening through easy-to-grow plant kits and school and community programs.
Students also suggested more easy-to-understand troubleshooting information online for the digital generation, more engaging and simpler-to-understand point-of-sale brochures, better training of garden center employees and even a virtual garden website or activity.
A former member of the National Gardening Bureau board, Messer says the bureau’s executive director, Diane Blazek, helped students by speaking to them during class and presented students’ findings to the bureau’s board and at the annual meeting of the American Seed Trade Association.
An article about the research was also published in GrowerTalks, a major horticulture industry publication and distributed during an industry convention this summer in Columbus, Ohio, Messer says.
Messer, who has a degree in horticulture from Purdue University, is a former president of the U.S. division of Daehnfeldt Inc., and Sluis and Groot, a Dutch seed-breeding company. Family members run a garden center, Jack’s Greenhouse, in North Manchester.
Messer says he believes students will reap benefits from the project when they interview for jobs and can show potential employers their research.
And the project had another result that Messer believes will benefit students in the long run. Several have started gardening themselves.
I’ve been getting emails all summer from graduates with pictures, saying Here’s the tomato I grew,’ he says.