Baby Boomer's Backyard Gardens

The Baby Boom Generation is Finding Flower Power in Backyard Gardening
| By Warren Schultz | From 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 Yes, the lawn may still be there, but it's smaller, much of it having been replaced by beds of ornamental plants--perhaps billowing grasses or thick foliage plants.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.

Still, we're not satisfied to plant a few perennials and set out a folding chair. We want an outdoor retreat that exhibits the same sense of style as the inside of our houses. So we're making up the rules as we go, and turning to new experts who serve up their horticulture with a dose of artful design--experts like Felder Rushing, Erica Glasener and Shep Ogden.

Felder Rushing is a baby boomer. He is also one of the new breed of cooperative extension agents (in his case, for the state of Mississippi). In years gone by, weed pressures, insect damage threshold and herbicide recommendations were the county agent's stock-in-trade. But Rushing doesn't spend his time reciting old instructions from dusty books of agronomy. He likes to stretch and take chances with his gardening, and the rules he offers to new gardeners reflect a risk-taking attitude. Here are six basic guide-lines, taking into account Rushing's suggestions as well as those of Glasener and Ogden.

Rule No. 1 Start With Structure

In this age, we don't ask plants to carry all the weight. We demand too much from the garden to do that. "So include a hardfeature, like a sculpture or a bench," Rushing recommends, "something that doesn't depend on flowers to work. Because you want your garden to call to you year-round." And plants have down times. The structure can be something as simple as a birdbath or an urn--anything that's in the garden month in and month out.

The right structure can add a new dimension to the garden. "A water feature is one of the greatest things you can put in a garden," Rushing says. "It doesn't need sunlight or good weather to work. It's effective any time of the year, any time of the day." And it adds something that plants can't--sound. "I really like the sound of water. It makes the noise of the city disappear."

Then make sure you have a comfortable place to sit and enjoy the soothing sound of water--like a porch swing. "A swing is the perfect place to sit and enjoy a cigar," Rushing says. He offers this tip: the longer the chain, the longer and more relaxing the swing.

You've got water, you've got breeze from the swing; there's one other powerful element that many overlook in the garden: fire. "We have a fire pit in our front yard," Rushing says. "It has the same primitive attraction that the flickering light of the TV mimics for us today. But this is for real. And we have a special iron poker that is just like the remote control clicker."

Once your features are in place, adds Rushing, "spend some time there. If you sit there in the garden, in time the idea of the flowers will come."

Rule No. 2 Diversify

Start with a wide variety of plant material, but make sure they are good, tough, local plants. Look for native plants--succulents in California, prairie grasses and wildflowers in the Plains states, conifers in the Northeast. "Choose plants with interesting foliage in a variety of three of four different shapes and sizes, from wide to narrow," he recommends. "Plants that have good strong foliage give you something to look at that doesn't change, and isn't seasonal." Use large plants to create walls; they give you the feeling of enclosure and act as noise and smoke filters.

Erica Glasener agrees. A horticulturist for about 20 years, she's a host on cable HGTV's "A Gardener's Diary." After spending most of her career as a staff member for nonprofit botanical gardens and arboreta, Glasener struck out on her own as a garden designer, and has found that she has become bolder about deciding what it takes to make a successful garden. Glasener believes that a garden's success may be determined before you buy a single plant. Which leads to:

Rule No. 3 Make a Business Plan

If you don't know where to start, says Glasener, hire someone to draw up a plan for you. And how do you find a designer? "The best way to find one is through word of mouth," says Glasener. "Get referrals from people whose gardens you like." But be prepared even before you speak to the designer. Keep your eyes open. Steal ideas. "I encourage my clients to visit botanical gardens in the area--and visit them in different seasons so you can see what plants look like other than in spring," she says. Consider the long term when planning. "People get seduced by blooms," she says. "You have to live with the plants when the blooms are gone.

"The garden should reflect your style and taste--whether you entertain outdoors or just want a place to smoke cigars," Glasener says. Think about your schedule. "If you're gone in the summer, maybe you don't care about summer blooming things. Think about how you want to use the garden; I had one client who replaced a window with French doors so they could enjoy the garden from inside."

Rule No. 4 Be Fearless

"Don't be intimidated by the act of creating a garden," Glasener says. "Never forget that there is room for growth and change in the garden. Gardens are never done. Gardening is not like architecture--you're allowed to change your mind, to goof and pull something out and move it around."

Rule No. 5 Do the Ground Work

"Soil preparation is critical," says Glasener. "The better the soil, the better the garden." Spend the time and the money to do the job right. In most situations, ornamentals, flowers and shrubs need to have a soil that is one-third organic matter (such as composted cow manure), one-third coarse sand and one-third existing soil. Start right, and you probably won't even have to fertilize perennials.

Remember, the more chores you can eliminate by proper planning, the more time you have to enjoy your garden.

That's the key, says Shep Ogden. He has spent enough years as an organic gardener to know that garden work is, well, work. Twenty years ago, his farm crops were laid out in efficient, but not overly artful, long, straight rows. But now, as president of Cook's Garden Seed, a seed company in Londonderry, Vermont, that specializes in gourmet vegetables and cut flowers, he has come to prize the ornamental value of vegetables.

Rule No. 6 Contain Yourself

The best way to design a low-maintenance garden, Ogden believes, is to get the garden out of the ground and into large containers. "I don't mean little pots," he says. "I mean large, formidable containers that can be design elements in themselves." The larger the container, the longer the plants in it will be able to go without watering. (You can avoid the worry of watering altogether by installing a drip irrigation system on a timer.) A two-foot-by-eight-foot container is a good size to start, Ogden says. "You can use boxes made of wood or brick, troughs, antique bathtubs, found art. Then fill them with large plants to provide immediate structure and privacy.

"Build a frame trellis on your container and plant pole beans," he advises. "They're beautiful plants with wonderful flowers in many different colors. They grow fast and they make good use of a small space."

He agrees that you need a variety of size, form and foliage to make a garden more interesting. "So you could plant a tub full of summer squash. They're tropical-looking plants and will create a jungle in no time at all. And every once in a while, a bonus. You'll be able to pick some nice young baby squash to sauté.

"And don't forget fruit," he says. "For a more permanent investment, you can grow dwarf peach trees in tubs." Or forget the containers and build a grape arbor. "Grapes are great," he says. As perennial crops, you plant them once, prune in late winter and forget about them. "Grow enough, and you'll have fresh grapes to eat in the fall. Grow the right kind, and you can maybe even make a little wine." And the arbor, with its exotic lush leaves and gnarled vines, gives you the feeling that you're in your own private world.

That, after all, is the real reason for a garden. As we turn to gardens to bring our homes outdoors, we're returning to the true meaning of a garden--a refuge. That's what gardens were in their earliest incarnations. The first pleasure gardens were walled enclosures, sanctuaries of privacy where the ancients could enjoy the soothing hand of nature. Now, we can, too.

Warren Schultz, a Vermont-based writer, is the author of The Chemical-Free Lawn (Rodale Press, 1989).