Each year since 1973, the Texas-based National Gardening Association works with professional pollsters to conduct the National Gardening Survey, which offers valuable insights into the mindset of gardeners across the United States. To help break the data down to better understand what gardeners think, my guest this week is National Gardening Association Executive Director Dave Whitinger.
Dave was raised by a family of gardeners and since the 1990s has worked in online educational and social media resources. In addition to his duties as NGA’s executive director, he is also the software developer responsible for Garden.org, a trove of information and tools for gardeners.
The National Gardening Survey is 50 questions and covers a wide variety of gardening and lawn care topics, from houseplants and flowers to controlling insects and choosing plants that benefit wildlife. Last year and again this year, the survey included a number of questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with some surprising results. The association’s quadrennial What Gardeners Think Survey was also conducted in 2021, revealing even more details on gardening trends and the outlook for the future.
The 2021 National Gardening Survey notes that interest in gardening is expected to remain strong in 2021, but as the nation emerges from the pandemic, “there are clouds on the gardening horizon.”
What Is The National Gardening Association?
The National Gardening Association, or NGA, was founded in 1971 to promote gardening — especially community gardens and vegetable gardening. Originally called Gardens for All, it quickly grew and evolved, and from early on got involved in research as well. The now-defunct company Garden Way, the original makers of Troy-Bilt tillers, was heavily involved with NGA in the beginning and supported the research.
NGA published National Gardening Magazine in the 1980s and ’90s, and today educates through its free website, Garden.org, and informative gardening books, including “Vegetable Gardening for Dummies” and “Composting for Dummies.” Garden Research, the research division of NGA, has worked with national polling companies to provide market research information for the lawn, garden, and nursery industries since 1973. NGA also formerly ran KidsGardening.org, which has since spun off.
The 2021 National Gardening Survey
So many of us took up new hobbies during the pandemic. Dave, for example, made sourdough bread for the first time and started brewing kombucha. For many others, their new hobby is gardening. In 2020, seven percent of adults gardened for the first time, the National Gardening Survey found. That’s 18 million new gardeners in the fold.
The survey, conducted by Dynata in January with 2,500 people surveyed, also found that a majority of American gardeners planned to garden at least as much as they did in 2020, if not more. Those findings held true, as gardening interest has remained high.
Once the survey was complete, NGA turned to the University of New Hampshire Survey Center to dig into the data and make sense of it. The final outcome is a 361-page report including 10 pages of commentary from Jim Feinson, the former CEO of Gardener’s Supply Company.
The What Gardeners Think Survey resulted in a separate 426-page report with expert commentary from Charlie Nardozzi, a nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, and radio and television personality — and a long-time friend of mine who’s joined me on the podcast to discuss the benefits of no-dig gardening.
The Reasons New Gardeners Gave for Trying Gardening
For those of us who have been gardening for quite some time, the reason we gardened in 2020 is “we’re gardeners,” Dave says. We would be gardening whether there was a pandemic or not. What NGA wanted to find out is why newcomers were attracted to gardening.
Of those new gardeners surveyed, 49% said they took up gardening for the good of their mental health. That was the No. 1 reason cited.
“Gardening just makes you feel better,” Dave says. “It makes you happier. Being connected with nature is important. Working with something that’s alive and seeing it grow and caring for it — it’s the same as raising a pet, like a dog or a cat. And of course, gardening is more forgiving than dogs and cats because if you kill your plant, well, you just plant another one.”
Another popular response, at 43%, was that they had more available time to garden. Dave notes that when gardeners are asked what’s stopping them from gardening more, not having the time is the most popular answer. For many of us in 2021, not having to drive to work meant less time spent in a vehicle and more time that could be spent in the garden.
The same percentage of respondents said that they wanted to beautify their home and wanted to engage in a positive, enjoyable, personal activity. There were 35% who said gardening is a good activity for the family to engage in together. The next most popular responses were good exercise and wanting to grow food.
The Future of Gardening, Post-Pandemic
As vaccines first became widely available in March and April this year, NGA saw gardening numbers fall, Dave reports. With an average of about 1 million visitors to NGA’s website per month, the association can see in real-time an increase or decrease in interest in gardening.
As all the people who had never gardened before went online and looked up gardening information, Garden.org saw twice as much traffic in April 2020 than in April 2019. And then from January to March 2021, the traffic exceeded 2020 numbers by far, but by April the growth curve flattened, Dave says. June 2021 saw 565,000 visitors compared to 850,000 in June 2020, a 32% decrease.
Less traffic could mean that folks were getting back to work or they cut back on gardening as they made plans to travel. I suspect it could also mean that their newbie gardener questions were largely answered in 2020, so they did less research even as they kept on gardening in 2021.
Dave points out that another reason people give for why they don’t garden more is they don’t know enough about what they are doing. That’s why gardening education is so important to gardener retention.
The National Gardening Survey also asks gardeners if they believe that they themselves or their significant others are garden masters or garden enthusiasts. In 2019, just 21 percent said yes, and a year later that number jumped to 28 percent, across all demographics, regardless of gender, age, education, income, region and homeowner or renter status.
The answer could have more to do with enthusiasm than level of expertise, but either way, it’s a good sign for the future of gardening.
“If you get to that level, you’re in the game for good,” Dave says.
Cannabis Cultivation Brings New Gardeners
Cannabis may end up being the gateway plant into vegetable gardening.
Half of survey respondents between the ages of 18 and 44 said they would probably cultivate cannabis if legal. But for those 55 and older, only an eighth said they would. That was a new question added to the survey in 2018, Dave points out.
As more states allow for home growing of cannabis, more people enter the gardening world. In fact, the survey found that one-third of households that do not currently garden would start if they could grow cannabis.
“That’s a huge opportunity for the gardening space to expand,” Dave says. “And if you’re going to cultivate cannabis, you’re going to learn about soil, you’re gonna learn about irrigation, you’re definitely going to learn about fertilizing and harvesting and care of plants — maybe some pest control. You’re going to learn all of those things, and now that you know that, you think, well, I was successful growing cannabis, maybe I can grow tomatoes also.”
The Reasons People Give for Not Gardening More
Only 7% of those who participated in the What Gardeners Think Survey said they will garden less in future years. That’s a small but not insignificant percentage that speaks to the obstacles many gardeners and would-be gardeners face.
When former gardeners are asked why they stopped gardening, they often say they no longer have the space or no longer have the need. Physical limitations, too much work, and conflicts with other interests and hobbies are also popular answers.
Many gardeners say they would garden more if they had more space (43%), more time (43%), better tools (35%), and a gardening companion (34%). A challenging climate is cited by 33% of gardeners who report limitations.
Those who have access to a nearby community garden can overcome a lack of space, and those who report they would garden more if they had more knowledge can sign up for a Master Gardener certification program through their local extension service.
Millennial Gardeners’ Numbers Are Growing
The age group with the most growth in gardening interest is 18–44, as millennials are overtaking baby boomers. Dave attributes growing interest among millennials to a few factors: They were waiting to get a house, get married or have children before they became involved in gardening.
Most New Gardeners Are Here to Stay
Many of us garden with reckless, blind ambition when we give it a shot for the first time — we just go for it. But then when a little seed or seedling becomes a massive plant, we can feel overwhelmed. I was worried many new gardeners would feel discouraged and throw in the towel, but the survey says that is not the case in 2021. Last year’s new gardeners have kept it up.
I am so encouraged to know that the majority of the people who got into gardening for the first time because of the pandemic intend to stay involved. That’s huge.
Dave says gardening has been fairly flat and slow to grow for years. The pandemic changed that. “It’s exactly what the gardening industry needed and very, very exciting and encouraging for the future,” he says.
I hope you enjoyed hearing from Dave Whitinger about the National Gardening Survey findings. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Are you gardening more or less in 2021 than you did in 2020? What led to your decision? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.