Everybody knows what makes gardens grow — sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil.
Add testosterone to the mix.
The guys of Generation Y are taking up their shovels in significant numbers, and those younger gardeners are putting their own masculine mark on the pursuit. Maybe they’re out to grow the hottest peppers they can produce. Maybe they’re raising hops for their own home brews. Maybe they just want an activity they can share with their spouses.
For Steve Larson, the appeal is eating healthfully.
Larson tends the gardens that supply Ms. Julie’s Kitchen, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant on South Main Street. There he raises the usual variety of vegetables, as well as popcorn, edamame and a tasty, mealy variety of corn he first ate when he visited Mexico during almost two years of travel after college.
The 24-year-old said he developed an interest in healthful eating back in high school, when he started practicing yoga and meditation while he was grounded for a youthful indiscretion and had to pass the time with activities he could do by himself.
“I just started listening to what was going on inside of me,” he said. In the process, he started paying closer attention to the foods he put into his body.
He’d been interested in gardening since he was little, he said, but he didn’t start growing food till he and his mom started a garden in their Tallmadge backyard when he was a teenager. He later honed his skills by volunteering on farms in Copley and Lodi through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and by working at the sustainable farm Breakneck Acres while he was studying at nearby Kent State University.
Larson believes the members of his generation — those born in the 1980s and ’90s — are conscious of issues such as environmental degradation and health problems caused by the way we live, and they’re striving to create a different future. Gardening, he said, is a way to improve his own life and the lives of others.
Besides, he likes working outdoors instead of being cooped up in an office. “I feel like I’m interacting with life a lot more,” he said.
That drive to improve the health of people and the planet is just one of the forces drawing 18- to 34-year-old men to gardening, said Susan McCoy, whose Garden Media Group included “young men in the dirt” among gardening trends in its 2014 trend report. Increasingly, they’re taking up a hobby that traditionally has been dominated by women and older men, she said.
McCoy said her Pennsylvania public relations firm first noticed an uptick in younger men gardening in 2005, a movement that coincided with an emerging interest in grilling. They saw chefs on TV using fresh herbs in their grilled creations, and they wanted to grow their own, she said.
Younger men spend an average of $441 annually on their lawns and gardens, according to a National Gardening Association survey. That’s $100 more than the average among all gardeners, or nearly 30 percent more.
They may share a common passion, but McCoy said their motivations vary. Some grow hops or grapes for making beer or wine at home. Some take up gardening when they have children — often with spouses or partners joining them in the garden — so they can produce their own baby food and take the kids outside to play in the fresh air while they work. Some garden as an extension of their concern for the environment. And some are motivated by “just the cool factor,” she said.
What’s surprising is they’re not necessarily waiting until they own homes. Like Larson, who feeds himself from the gardens he tends for the restaurant, they’re finding places to grow things beyond the backyard — places like balconies and community gardens and even fire escapes.
In one way, though, they’re gardening just they way their fathers and grandfathers did: These young male gardeners tend to gravitate more toward growing food than flowers, which follows a traditional male-female gardening divide, McCoy said.
In that regard, Alex Miller is an exception.
Miller, 33, has an interest in both ornamental and food gardening — so much so that his primary focus is a combination of the two called foodscaping. Foodscaping is organic landscaping that incorporates edible plants, he explained.
Miller said he had never been exposed to gardening until his parents moved from Akron to the Stark County countryside when he was a child. His mother, Cheryl, grew both vegetables and flowers there, and he found himself fascinated by the process.
Later Miller worked for a time for Mustard Seed Market and grew enamored of local produce. He’d open a box of melons or beets, and “it was like, oh, my gosh, this is beautiful,” he recalled. “… I still get excited to this day about local spinach.”
Now Miller has his own landscaping business and is certified in permaculture, an approach to growing things that works in harmony with nature. He and his wife, Shannon Hockensmith, even brought along many of their plants when they moved earlier this month from one house to another in Highland Square. In fact, digging, moving and transplanting the plants took more work and required more help than moving the furniture, he said.
Now a globe sculpture created by his father, artist P.R. Miller, stands in a bed of day lilies the couple inherited with the house. Next spring the sculpture will probably support peas. “Peas on earth,” he said with a grin. “Visualize world peas.”
A variety of plants grow in six raised beds and elsewhere throughout the yard — blueberries and sage and Knock Out roses, rainbow chard and grapevines and a pawpaw tree. Pots lining the driveway hold kale, peppers and elephant ear, and arched trellises along the front fence wait to be planted next year, probably with green beans.
The couple even brought along finished compost and have started a compost bin in the back of the yard.
Ask Miller why he gardens, and he can’t give a single answer.
Healthful eating, for one thing. Sustainability, for another. He likes the way gardening keeps him in touch with the earth, and the way it improves neighborhoods by building a sense of community and fostering safety in a neighborhood.
And then there’s “the magical aspect of watching food grow,” he said.
Young male gardeners, it seems, aren’t too far removed from curious kids.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MBBreckABJ, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.