Survey explores why Americans garden, but not why they don’t

[Update 6/24/10: corrected heading for column 2 in table]

With a terrible economy and lots of coverage of gardening in the mass media, more and more Americans are growing food in home and community gardens. According to a 2009 survey, almost a third of American households intended to grow food that year, a 19% increase over 2008.

These numbers and many more can be found in the National Gardening Association’s “Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America” (PDF), one of the documents cited in the USDA’s recently released report on local foods, ERR-97. The survey was performed by the market research experts at Harris Interactive and sponsored by ScottsMiracle-Gro Company. (Note that whenever I refer to “gardening” in this post without a modifier, I am referring to growing food, not ornamental plants.)

In 2008, the survey estimates, approximately 31 million American households spent $2.5 billion on food gardening inputs and tools — seeds, soil, fertilizer, and so on. Those expenditures, help from Mother Nature and time spent working in the garden resulted in a satisfying payback: a “Gross Domestic Garden Product” of more than $21 billion.*  This represents a return on investment of more than 8, a number that is several times larger than the sum of direct-to-consumer and direct-to-retail (which is about $6 billion per year).

The table below compares the income distribution of gardeners in the survey (the percent of gardeners that are in each income group) compared to the national income distribution**. In the top and second highest income blocks, the distribution of gardeners roughly parallels the national distribution. But in the $35,000 – $49,999 income block, gardening is disproportionally likely: among gardeners you’re more than twice as likely to find a household in this income group than in the general public (28.9% vs. 14.1%). In the lowest income category, however, gardening is underrepresented.

Income Range

% of food gardeners

in income range

% of U.S. households
in income range

> $75.000



$50,000 – $74,999



$35,000 – $49,999



< $35,000



Satisfaction, safety, and savings top the list of gardening motivations: 58% said that they garden to get better tasting food, 54% to save money on food, 51% to grow better quality food and 48% to be sure about the safety of their food. The Great Recession is pushing more people into the garden, with 34% responding that the economic troubles are motivating their gardening practices either “very much” or a “fair amount.”

The survey also asked about school gardens. Although only 19% of respondents knew of any gardening programs within their local schools, a significant fraction thought that gardens had a place within schools: 35% said that garden programs should be established “whenever possible,” 22% as an extracurricular activity only, 20% “within every school”, and 20% “when convenient.” Only 3% said that gardening programs should not be offered at all.

e-new-gardenThose who who don’t grow food aren’t left out, but don’t receive much analysis. When asked whether they will try to grow food in the future, 66% of the non-gardeners said that they are “not at all likely,” while only 3% said they were extremely or very likely. Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t press for reasons. What puts people into the “not at all likely” group? How many are simply not interested? And how many are not growing food because they lack of spare time, knowledge, a growing area or something else that can be addressed through community gardens, education or other public and private programs. Growing food can be a great way to connect with natural cycles, experience sublime flavors, eat better and save some money, so if we are going to expand the number of gardeners, we need to know what keeps people from growing their own.


* How $21 billion was calculated: 36 million gardens, an average garden size of 600 square feet, a yield of 0.5 pounds per square foot, and a value of $2 per pound.

** National income data are for 2007, from Table 674 of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Reports, P60-235 (August 2008). The median income in 2007 was $50,233. In the garden survey, 17% of the respondents did not answer the income question, so I rescaled the responses assuming that the non-respondents to the income question were proportionally distributed across groups, a reasonable assumption since Harris weights the results for income level (see page 17 of the survey for details).  So, for example, the top income category’s 22% was scaled by 100 / (100 – 17) to get 26.5.

The “Grow your own: Be Sure!” poster was downloaded from the University of North Texas Libraries Digital Collection and is in the public domain. The garden bed photo is by fellow Ethicurean Elanor Starmer.

8 Responsesto “Survey explores why Americans garden, but not why they don’t”

  1. chrissy says:

    i am an avid gardener. i know people who would never be caught dead gardening. one is a woman in her 60′s who refuses to cook. she’s a woman out of the 1960′s “women’s lib” movement, and i believe she equates gardening with being subservient to a man. another woman i know is in her 30′s and does not like to get dirty. i think there are as many reasons people have to not gardening as there are FOR gardening.

  2. sara says:

    I live in a neighborhood where most residents would not be caught dead growing anything other than bermuda grass or water-guzzling decoratives.  “Safeway is RIGHT THERE, why would I mess with that?” is a common whinge I hear.  They think I’m nuts for having hens, too.  It’s an entitlement issue.  “I shouldn’t have to do THAT.”

  3. I’m surprised at such low percentages. Virtually everyone I know gardens for food. Urban vs deep rural perhaps.

  4. OTTObox says:

    Lack of gardening knowledge or the fear of failure are two reasons the survey indirectly links.  While a large amount of people surveyed say they won’t garden, a larger number say they would like gardening to be part of education.   The want for knowledge is there.  Unfortunately, the seeking is lacking.

  5. sara says:

    I’d be interested to see how many people hire gardeners to maintain their edible landscaping, actually.  I can’t afford to do that so I do it myself.  That might be a hindrance to some would-be food gardeners, whether they can get someone to help ‘em with it or not.

  6. Hired gardeners. My first reaction was “What’s the point.” But then I realized I am a hired gardner of sorts. I farm. The garden isn’t even at the person’s home. We just deliver the fresh food ready to cook, or to the restaurant where it is cooked by hired chefs and served by hired waitstaff and the dishes are washed by hired dishwashers, etc. Thinking about it we must all be appreciative that there are people with the money to spend on these things. I like farming and I appreciate there are people who will pay me to do what I like to do. So I guess hired gardeners is cool too.

    Recaptcha of the day: “Huck That” – I’m still looking for that secret subliminal message that must be embedded… :)

  7. sara says:

    I guess the reason hired gardeners came up for me as something that should have been tracked, is there are folks like myself who are working at being urban homesteaders but work 40+ hrs/wk outside the home.  It would actually not occur to me to hire anyone unless I needed help with removing a tree, or with sheet-mulching, where many hands make lighter work.

    It is exhausting doing this stuff myself while I hold down a fulltime job, but it is definitely worthwhile. 

    Urban homesteading attracts 9 to 5′ers, too.  It sure does shave $$ off the grocery bill, as it boosts the nutritional oomph of what I cook.

  8. Milk Thistle says:

    Thanks for this great post exploring the reasons why or why not Americans choose to garden. I think many people turn to gardening as a way to save money.