Generation Y’s Reluctance To Garden Linked To Fear Of Failure

Generation Y’s Reluctance To Garden Linked To Fear Of Failure

Stephanie Whitehouse-Barlow, Peace Tree Farm

Stephanie Whitehouse-Barlow, Peace Tree Farm

The Rookie Gardener is easily spotted at a garden center by her nervous and unsure energy that’s as glaring 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 Millennials’ 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 a natural part of the learning process.

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 Yers were taught to expect positive reinforcement and are desensitized to the value of failure.

Provide Gardening Experiences With Instant Feedback

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 that 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 in which 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 coin or secret cheat code allowing you to skip to the next level unharmed. Without instant feedback, the Millennial gardener second guesses their purchases and gardening abilities, beginning the downward spiral into FOF.

Don’t Take Away The Hands-On Plant Experience

Consumer research from Today’s Garden Center’s 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 very benefits the Gen Yer was seeking when originally picking up gardening. The Millennial learns the lesson “plants cannot fulfill my needs,” and in turn, the industry loses 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 homebrewing, 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.

Offer Community-Style Gardening Opportunities

Collaborative pop-up gardens and events, which pair seasonal gardens with local breweries, musicians, artisans and food trucks, are great local community mixers that provide the plant experience Millennials 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.