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Fear & Loathing in the Garden

Generation Y’s Reluctance to Garden and Our Fear of Failure

The Rookie Gardener: easily spotted at a garden center by her nervous and unsure energy that’s as blaring as a scarlet letter, or by his exuberant self-assured confidence that is only otherwise seen at a college fraternity party. They are our industry’s enigma, our kryptonite, the treasure chest we cannot open. The Rookie Gardener’s reluctance to garden isn’t from our industry’s lack of targeted marketing or encouragement but from the Millennial’s Fear of Failure (FOF).

It is obvious that failure is a part of life but we as a generation have been programmed to NOT expect or accept failure. Since early childhood we were encouraged to always win, to do our absolute best at school every day, to beat the competition. “Focused on getting the grades or winning the game, these children have internalized the pressure, [which] paralyzes kids in their ability to take risks,” writes Holly Korbey in an article for the blog MindShift. Baby Boomer parents who didn’t want their Millennial children to “live the hard life” took away the necessary difficult experiences and mistakes that teach a child how to work through challenges and that failure is natural. Our society rewards those who win. Whether it be in the form of a participation ribbon at the school science fair, the trophy at the end of basketball season, merit badges from Boy & Girl Scouts, gold stars on a chore chart, or saving Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Brothers. By making every experience easy Gen Y’ers were taught to expect positive reinforcement and were desensitized to the value of failure.

Millennials enjoy experiences that exhibit the benefits of plants – like hiking and kayaking, cooking a healthy meal, craft brewing and botanical cocktails, curating a collection, or wellness lifestyles. However, they do not recognize how the same satisfying sense of achievement is fulfilled by gardening. Instead gardening is seen in the classical sense of planting large flower beds and perennials in front of one’s single-family home, as hard work, or an activity for old ladies with large hats. For the Millennial, gardening has too many “What ifs” to consider. Our industry’s jargon and complexity is not making it any easier.

Unlike a video game where levels are clearly outlined and achievements are awarded along the way, gardening has no linear direction to a guaranteed finish. Although we know a tomato plant will yield fruit we can later eat, there are many unknown obstacles and great uncertainty in the path to that harvest. With cut flowers as an exception, plants do not give instant feedback of accomplishment; there is no “star player” trophy, bonus coins, or secret cheat code allowing you to skip to the next level unharmed. Without instant feedback, the Millennial gardener second guesses their purchase and gardening abilities, beginning the downward spiral into FOF.

The SHIFT Exhibit at Cultivate ’15 perfectly described characteristics of Gen Y’ers who suffer from FOF. “She worries about what she doesn’t know and is hesitant to support something – or someone – when she doesn’t know their values or story. She wants to feel and be successful.” Consumer research from the 10% Project recently confirmed Millennials’ fear of seeming ignorant, and that gardening is perceived as a slow and unpredictable activity unlike other hobbies of the digital age. Do-It-For-Me products such as mixed containers or herb and vegetable “salsa gardens” give instant gratification but take away the experience and joy of playing with plants, the benefits the Gen Y’er was seeking when originally picking up gardening. The Millennial learns the lesson “plants cannot fulfill my needs”, and in turn the industry looses a plant customer for the future.

Millennials are not averse to trying new activities that require a great deal of knowledge or skill. This is seen in our quick jump onto the home brewing, gourmet-at-home cooking, and marathon running band wagons. We will try new things if coached, given all the tools for success, and given clear, well depicted and communicated steps for completing a new activity. Garden centers can easily remove the stigma of feeling ignorant by changing the title of on-staff Horticulture Experts to Garden Coaches. Collaborative pop-up gardens and events, which pair seasonal gardens with local breweries, musicians, artisans, and food trucks are a great local community mixer that provide the plant experience Gen Y’ers are seeking. Growers can participate by listing the edibles they grew for the partnering chefs. Garden centers can host make-and-take projects or tag plants in the garden that can be purchased at their store. Millennials are a communal group that will try something new if friends participate. Community gardens provide a chance to accomplish a common goal as a group and an outlet to show off individual successes. In the security of friends no one will judge you for failure because the plants were grown collectively.

Home brewing, marathon training, and creating delicious meals all take time to master with a delayed reward or sense of accomplishment; what Millennials recognize is that the reward is in the journey, not the destination. And for those of us who don’t, there’s always a medal at the Tough Mudder finish line!