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Baby Boomer's Backyard Gardens

The Baby Boom Generation is Finding Flower Power in Backyard Gardening
Warren Schultz
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

The scent of cigar smoke and freshly clipped grass are forever linked in my memory. I can't smell one without thinking of the other. Together, they always suggest Saturday mornings to me. That was when my father embarked on his weekly ritual of mowing the lawn, striding behind the Toro with a White Owl firmly clamped in his mouth.

That was back in the 1950s when the perfectly manicured lawn was politically correct, and people smoked cigars outdoors by choice. Gardens have changed a lot since then, but more and more Americans are discovering that they are perfect places to enjoy a leisurely smoke. Gardens today are more like outdoor rooms. Yes, the lawn may still be there, but it's smaller, much of it having been replaced by beds of ornamental plants--perhaps billowing grasses or thick foliage plants. Where once one neighbor's lawn flowed into another's, now shrubs and trees create privacy and enclosure. And instead of an aluminum folding chair to flop into after the mowing is done, today you can recline on a teak bench.

Today, gardens, like cigars, have made a comeback, and baby boomers are leading the resurgence. According to Bruce Butterfield, research director of the National Gardening Association, nearly half the gardeners in America are 30 to 49 years old, and they spent $22.5 billion on lawn and garden care in 1996, the latest year for which figures are available. Clearly, gardening is not just for your grandmother anymore. Oprah Winfrey gardens, as does Patti LuPone. Donald Trump built a garden on the roof of his Manhattan penthouse. And then there's Martha Stewart, who has almost single-handedly made digging in the dirt as glamorous as throwing a dinner party. In some neighborhoods, the status symbol is not the Mercedes in the garage, but the miscanthus by the driveway.

Every generation finds itself gravitating toward the ground as it grows older. "Earlier in our lives we're focusing on our careers, our relationships and our kids," says Butterfield. "But as we grow older we find we've got more time to pursue interests that simply make us feel good. And gardening offers almost instant gratification. At the same time, it allows us to enhance the value of our single biggest investment: our home."

It's only after we reach a certain age that we're ready for the emotional lift, the sense of security and accomplishment that gardening brings. Every generation reaches that point, but every generation does it differently.

Gardens have always been mirrors of the times. From the walled pleasure gardens of ancient Persia to the formal gardens of Versailles to the colonial kitchen gardens of Williamsburg, if you want to know where a nation is--what is held dear in taste and style--look in the backyards.

America's gardens have clearly changed with the times over the past 50 years. In the 1940s, when the first baby boomers were starting to toddle about, the garden of choice was the Victory Garden. You grew vegetables to make up for produce that had gone to war. The peacetime 1950s brought a migration away from the cities and toward the conformity and comfort of the suburbs. Those times were reflected in acres of lawn, severely clipped hedges, and shrubs planted along the foundation of ranch houses. Then came the '60s and the back-to-the-land movement. There was revolution in the backyard. Gardeners defied the establishment rows of their parents and planted in beds and circles and mandalas. Peace and love, coexistence and companion planting ruled.

Gardening slumped in the 1970s, as the rise of the two-income family cut into leisure time, and cable TV, computers and health clubs vied for our attention. But by the go-go '80s gardening began a comeback. Gardeners were looking for lasting value, and good investments, so they turned to perennials--plants that would continue to grow and increase in value year after year.

Now in the 1990s, we're ready for gardens we can enjoy. Simplicity and elegance guide our lives. Today, gardens are being designed and built with all the flair and individuality that we put into decorating the interior of our homes. We've mastered the inside. Now we want to bring that same style outdoors. The garden is returning to its roots as a room, every bit as legitimate as the dining room or the kitchen. We're eating in the garden, entertaining in the garden.

But we don't want to spend a lot of time working in the garden. We've earned the right to enjoy it, so today's gardens are easier to maintain. Time-consuming turf has been cut back. Perennials don't require replanting every year. Mulches make short work of weeding.

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