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GARDENING : Baby Boomers Make Gardening a Hip Hobby


This is one of those haywire years when the 90-degree weather came before the tomatoes were a glimmer in the gardener's eye.

But whither the weather, gardening is enjoying record popularity, surveys show, with seemingly every patch of ground, every bit of balcony and every box on every window being tilled to within an inch of its life.

"I always say it's a whole lot cheaper than a psychiatrist," said music producer Jack Heyrman, 40, who can be found most weekends in the garden of his home in Baltimore. "I think there's something very naturally pleasing about getting dirty, not to sound too granola about it."

He is one of thousands of younger gardeners who are giving the age-old hobby a boost. The National Gardening Assn., for example, has found that the number of gardeners in the United States rose to 70 million and lawn and garden sales to $16.3 billion last year.

"It's because of the baby-boom generation," said Bruce Butterfield, the association's research director. "Traditionally, people discover gardening when they turn 40. In your 20s, you have school, your identity, your job to organize. In your 30s, your emphasis is on family and home. You hit your 40s, and you want to have a hobby you can enjoy, and you have the income to indulge in it."

Baby boomers, that demographic bulge of people born between 1946 and 1964, began entering their 40s several years ago, and will continue to do so until 2004.

Gardening is enjoying the same kind of boom that cooking went through in the '80s--an old and homey craft suddenly elevated to trend status when discovered by the Y-people, those young urban professionals committed to turning whatever they do into the hippest thing.

Even the garden club, that haven of the white-glove-and-tea-sandwich set, has felt the influx of the nouveau gardener. Many local clubs have started meeting at night to accommodate members who work outside the home during the day.

"Many of our young ladies are in the work force, and they can't come to our day meetings," said Sue Tray, president of the 5,000-member Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland. "We're not merely the luncheon-flower show group any more, though we still have that."

Tray added, however, that it's not just a case of garden clubs updating themselves to meet the modern world; in some ways, the world is catching up with gardeners. She laughs at the instant environmentalists. Gardeners, she believes, are the original environmentalists.

"It's the one, small bit I can do to enhance my environment," said Pat Schiavi, of Stoneleigh, Md. "People talk about losing control of the world, but in my own yard I can determine what's ecologically right."

Schiavi, a former Baltimore County schoolteacher who runs a family business out of her home and raises two children, said she knew next to nothing about plants--"I knew you needed seeds or cuttings, and they required water and light"--until she joined her local garden club. Now, she is president of the club and, at 38, one of its youngest members.

New and old gardeners alike are turning to gardening magazines, books and catalogues to learn more about the craft.

"Anytime a magazine like Southern Living has a feature, we get five or six calls," said Wink Rupprecht, vice president of Pinehurst Nursery in Long Green, Md.

Mail-order catalogues have gone beyond the basics. In addition to the stalwart Burpee's, gardening by mail now includes such upscale wish books as Smith & Hawken and Gardener's Eden.

They are as seductive as anything J. Crew or Williams-Sonoma ever lavished a lens on. Suddenly, you wonder how on earth you ever got along without an etagere a fleur (plant stand), adobe hose pot or Pirelli work gloves. And knowing the yuppie appeal of the import, one catalogue offers Italian market umbrellas, English planters, Swedish stepladders, Provencal vases, Valencian glassware, Chinese garden pots and even reproductions of the furniture in Claude Monet's gardens at Giverny.

But while some may scoff at such frivolities, cataloguers such as Paul Hawken of Smith & Hawken say their wares are, at their heart, functional.

"If you're a ballet dancer, you can't dance in Keds," said Hawken, who in 11 years has turned his catalogue into a $50-million business.

"We just try to sell things that are useful and beautiful."

Though based in Mill Valley, Calif., 70% of Smith & Hawken's customers live on the East Coast.

"We don't have maple trees turning golden in the fall here. We don't have crocuses coming up through the snow," Hawken said.

"Gardening means more to people with weather, with four seasons."

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