“Putting Down Roots”

Speech to Garden Writers Convention, March 6, 2006

Good Morning. It is a pleasure and privilege to speak to you. Mr. Evison will be a hard act to follow. I especially appreciated, sir, the idea of pruning a plant while upside down. Never heard that one. It is a great image to take away from this lecture. So I hope I can be as imaginative as he. I am going to present 3 topics today that address the great growth taking place in gardening. First, I am going to talk about the Baby Boom and its characteristics, how it is going to work. Then, second, I am going to talk about the significance of the quality of people who make up the Boomers: what kind of people, what they think, how they feel. Third, I am going to talk about their specific tastes and preferences in gardening, and then finally I shall conclude with a discussion of what all these points mean in the major ways that make an impact on the future of this industry.First, Baby Boomers – I struggle sometimes when I make the point of how utterly phenomenal this “big bang” of population growth is. There are lots of figures mentioned,but most agree that this one generation of Baby Boomers, spreading across 20 years from 1946 to 1966, is about 4 times larger than previous generations. Some put it a bit lower, but suffice it to say that in sheer numbers we are talking about a very significant increase. An explosive increase, this is why I call it a “big bang”. Another reason I call it a big bang is for the same reason the sociologists call it a “structural trend”, meaning that it represents permanent growth: it’s not going away. The reason that I say this should be obvious. Babies become reproductive adults. Being themselves, as well as producing in the future, adult gardeners, which we will get to shortly.Also significant is the consumer society of today, most notably ours here in North America. We can buy a great number of things, and in an assortment unheard of in the past, and of a general quality higher than ever before and costing us significantly fewer dollars than before. I am not a historian, so perhaps a similar phenomenon took place in the ancient world of Greece or Rome or Persia, I don’t know. What is unique today is when a sort of “Perfect Storm” occurs, which is the coming together of a fourfold increase in the size of a generation, an age group, and an unprecedented level of affluence, combining with an unprecedented quantity of inexpensive goods.

Now let’s talk about these people’s personalities, their tastes and preferences in living, homemaking and especially gardening. The Baby Boom generation is extraordinarily “taste conscious”. What I mean is they are very conscious of the stories behind the products – much more so than their parents and grandparents. Today, we want to know where things come from, what their names mean and who else likes them. As we age we also become more relaxed and broader minded and in fact more interested in the little details than we were when we were young. We are not rushing around so much anymore. Also we are very interested in living longer and better than our parents and grandparents did. This is both qualitative and quantitative. One friend I know is taking up baking her own bread, another has started making his own cheese, still another has taken up brewing beer in his kitchen. Probably half the women I know have discovered knitting. But I see everyone doing these different things in a very knowledgeable way and with a great deal of emphasis on knowing and being familiar with as many details, aspects, stories and background information as possible. Look at the knitting websites—they’re fantastic. Plus, boomers like to take time to do stuff. Instant gratification isn’t gratifying to them. To get time, you have to take time. The so-called “aging hippies” have known this for a long time. The rest of us are getting to know it more slowly.

Now let’s take a look at gardening.

Gardening is a function of age, which is to say of time available to a person. Our statistics at Heronswood, Burpee and The Cook’s Garden are hard as rock. I’m confident of what I can tell you about committed, dedicated gardeners. People begin gardening seriously sometime in their early to mid 40’s and they typically do not slow down until their late 60’s or early 70’s. Why is this? Why does gardening reflect such a demographic? Well, the house will probably, by your early to mid 40’s, be the one you will live in for the rest of your life. Most, if not all of the children are past puberty, and they become relatively low maintenance by that point, at least, in terms of time needed caring for them. At the office, as well as in your own life, these are the years when you begin to pass over the hump, if you haven’t already. Indeed, like your house, your job is probably going to be the last one you will have. The “rat race” is over. Also, physically, as we know, “Time is metabolism”. Few can argue persuasively that we move faster when we reach 50. In fact, it is universally true that everyone slows down quite a bit, and in our case we’re addressing the of hundreds of thousands of affluent Baby Boomers. All these changes in life point to an interest in, if not a growing love affair with, home gardening.

Think of the immediate impact that a vegetable and herb garden has on the back yard, and that flower and perennial beds have in the front yard. Suddenly, your house is truly beautiful. It’s like a woman in a dress versus a pair of overalls or a uniform. No comparison! As we slow down our immediate surroundings, actually become filled with light. We notice this – we want our surroundings, as distinct from, but also in addition to ourselves, to be brilliant and attractive.

Also, the impact that aging has on health causes Baby Boomers to take a hard look at what they are eating, and this is something we do every day. Suddenly, fresh vegetables and herbs look very interesting. Remember, this is the generation that 20 years ago was smoking a lot of cigarettes and enjoying fine wine, whiskey and restaurant meals. Now we are discovering antioxidents, lycopenes, good fats, and bad fats.

Finally, we can’t forget gardening when we talk about the quality of life and when we refer to the inner self versus the outer self. I can tell you that there is no single thing that gives me more satisfaction – in fact, that gives me more pleasure – than spending all day gardening. These are the days I’ll take to my grave: getting up at dawn and going outside and gardening straight through the day until the light fades out. Words cannot express the feeling that this experience gives a person. You just feel perfectly happy. I understand the attraction of golf, I really do. I’m not very good at the game, but there are moments on the course when I walk around the corner and suddenly there is this vision of landscape beauty I never saw before. I have to say I golf almost entirely in New Mexico where there are very unusual golf courses. And, if you want to see a good example of the way a company has handled the Baby Boom perfectly, check out the way that Nike has developed their golf business. What they did to make jogging easy, fun and sexy, they are doing the same to golf. Take my word for it. However, golf does not hold a candle to day long gardening – it’s not even close. The soil is mine, the roots are mine, the plants are mine and, in a weird way, the sunlight and the air become mine too. And everywhere I turn, every day of the Spring, Summer and Fall, I see beauty that only I created or helped along, as if I was breathing life into creation. This is the secret of the attraction of real gardening. This is the reason we call it, “The Burpee Army”. And the Heronswood regulars call themselves, “Heronistas”. Passion rules.

In conclusion, people ask me sometimes what makes a good gardener? I am reminded of what a friend told me when I bought Heronswood, our famous rare plant nursery in Washington. He said if you can survive one complete winter in Seattle without leaving, and you are willing to try another year, you are a survivor, you can be a resident if you want. Perhaps it’s not a neat or perfect comparison, but I like to say that if you can garden one full season – dig in the ground outside in the summer time several hours a day all summer, digging lots of holes on your hands and knees, and still want to do it again next year – you’re a gardener. It is as simple and unmistakable as that. Everyone knows if they’re a gardener or not, and everyone knows who the gardeners are. It is very similar to pet ownership. It is not a subject of fashion. In fact gardening is “anti-fashion”. Like “anti-matter”, it’s very real. People garden to get away from the world of trendiness, faddishness and fashion. “What’s hot”, “Are you in or out?”… These are questions that gardeners find uninteresting if not boring. The garden is their refuge. Social status may have been part of their youth but now it is very much part of their distant past and they do not want to hear about it. Gardeners like things the way they are in the garden: simple, direct, wholesome. “Garden variety” means traditional to the point of being ordinary. Gardeners are not interested in razzle dazzle. There is quite enough of that going on in their flower bed, and they aren’t interested in the flashly lures of the fashion world. On the contrary, they shun them. They’ve put down their roots, and it is in their front yard and back yard gardens that they wish to stay, and keep on “booming” forever.

Thank You.

Speech Delivered at Philadelphia Flower show, 03/06/06

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