Garrett Hoffman, 28, doesn’t have a yard. But he was determined to have a garden. “This is my first apartment ever with outdoor space,” said Hoffman, who grows tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, chard and herbs on his St. Paul balcony.
Hoffman’s “small but mighty” garden helps the University of Minnesota researcher and graduate student stretch his food budget, he said. “I just come out here and pick a salad, or make mojitos. It’s cheap — a package of mint at the store is $4.”
Gardening also has become his passion. “I love growing stuff,” he said. “It’s a form of creation. I’m not an artist. I write super-dense academic things. For me to be able to take seeds and create something living and growing is like art.”
The ancient art of gardening is now being embraced by a new demographic.
For decades, the typical gardener has been an older woman, while guys who gardened tended to be gray-haired grandpas. Now younger men are muscling in. “Young Guys Get Down and Dirty” was identified as a top garden trend for 2014 by the Pennsylvania-based Garden Media Group.
“We started to see the trend in 2005, when there was a slight uptick, but last year it really picked up,” said president/founder Suzi McCoy. “It’s a combination of a cultural shift and the foodie movement.”
As a group, younger men gardeners aren’t producing pretty flowers but hearty edibles — and drinkables — that they like to consume. “They’re growing vegetables they can throw on the grill, in particular hot peppers — the hotter the better,” McCoy said.
She could be describing Austin Lindstrom.
“I’m a vegetarian, big into food,” said Lindstrom, 37, who tends three vegetable gardens: his own in St. Paul, plus gardens at his mother’s and fiancée’s houses. “Tomatoes are my main thing. I try to find rare and unique varieties.”
He also grows 16 varieties of beets, hunts for wild mushrooms and maintains a website (www.growfindexplore.com) focused on gardening and foraging. Last year, he experimented with “ultra-hot peppers,” but removing the seeds proved so painful that he opted not to grow them this year. “They burned my eyes and nose. They were weapon-grade!”
These gardeners are getting the industry’s attention because they’re big spenders. Men between 18 and 34 spent $100 more on gardening last year than the average gardener, according to a survey by the National Gardening Association.
Audrey Matson, co-owner of Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply in St. Paul has seen the shift.
“Most garden-store customers have traditionally been middle-aged women,” said Matson, who worked at other garden centers before opening Egg|Plant in 2010. “We’re seeing a lot of young guys, more than you would traditionally expect. They’re focused mostly on the edibles,” she said; “mushroom logs” are a popular purchase.
So are hops for home-brewing, which she recently added to her inventory. “Young men love brewing,” and fermentation (think homemade sauerkraut and kimchi), “which is kind of like brewing,” she said.
Growing hops for home-brew is a fast-growing garden niche nationwide, according to McCoy. “It’s the cool factor — to be able to say, ‘I grew it myself.’ To say, ‘I grew it and brewed it’ is even cooler.”
Nothing but hops
In Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood, a group made up mostly of young men has transformed a formerly vacant lot into a community hops garden (www.communityhops.org). “It’s a groundbreaking project — I’m not aware of any other community garden focused exclusively on hops,” said Andrew Schmitt, 34, of St. Paul.
On a recent Sunday, members gathered at the sunny, urban plot, with its backdrop of looming grain elevators, to tend the hops — nine varieties. Hops take about three years to mature, so “there’s not going to be a ton of yield this season,” Schmitt said. Still, members are planning a fall “community brew day” — and looking forward to the beer to come.
“Fresh-hop beers are a little more bright and flavorful,” said Donovan Gruebele, 35, of St. Paul.
But the garden is about more than great-tasting beer; it’s also part of a larger lifestyle, focused on DIY and buying local.
“Home-brewing brings me great joy,” said Mark Opdahl, 31, of St. Paul, who organizes craft beer festivals for a living (www.chopliverinc.com). “I’m a fan of doing everything yourself,” including growing your own vegetables, which he does in his rented back yard.
“Indie beer culture is something our age group is into,” said Gruebele. “Craft beer is a lot of different things: community, artisanship and knowing where your beer is coming from.”
For Chris Andrejka, 29, of St. Paul, tending the hops is its own reward. “I love beer, and I love gardening,” he said. “It’s nice to get out here and get your hands in the dirt,” he added, as he tied vines to lengths of twine. “There’s a chemical reaction to touching soil; it actually makes you happy.”
Gruebele brought his baby daughter, Isla, to enjoy the garden, and often takes her to brewery taprooms, he said. “It’s different than going into a bar. Craft beer is a community. People bring their kids and don’t look at you sideways because you brought your baby.”
Men with young children in tow are also frequent visitors at Egg|Plant, said Matson. “Young dads, they’ll bring their kids into the store to see the baby chicks. It turns into a little petting zoo.”
Kids, in fact, are another factor motivating more young men to take up gardening, according to McCoy. Parental roles are shifting, with more women becoming primary breadwinners and more men choosing to stay home with the kids — and looking for activities to share with them.
“They like to get outside and get dirty,” McCoy said. This generation of young dads grew up playing video games, but now that they’re parents, they’re trading games for gardens. “They had to get a new hobby, something active, and they’re taking up gardening.”
Even young men who don’t have kids are seeking more hands-on, home-based hobbies, according to McCoy. “It’s the anti-technology shift; they want to get off the computer, unplug and do gardening, cooking, knitting, crafting and canning. We’re getting back to homely activities … men have far more interest today in what’s inside the home.”
For Hoffman, the graduate student and balcony gardener, nurturing his plants is a bit like nurturing children. “I check on them all the time, and worry about them when they look sad,” he said. “They’re my babies.”