Toronto Star column – published October 5,2013
“Any kid will run any errand for you if you ask at bedtime.” ~Red Skelton
In June I was invited to speak at the Annual General Meeting of the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was an honour for me to be able to address a distinguished group of volunteers and staff. We are fortunate to have them digging in with both hands to make our community a better place.
I mention this out of respect for all of the work and private donations that have been made at the RBG for 3 generations. It was hard not to notice, however, that the crowd of about 200 people were senior seniors. The few in attendance who were in their 40’s or 50’s appeared to be caregivers for their attending parents.
Where, then, I asked, are the young people? It is a question that perplexes many of us in the business. If men and women in their 20’s and 30’s are not interested in gardening as a hobby, a career, or as a passive form of entertainment, enjoyed from the comfort of a park bench, then who is going to steward the public gardens of the future?
To find out I went to the source and connected with Carleigh Thompson, communications manager of the Royal Botanical Gardens; and managers at the TorontoBotanical Garden; Paul Zammit, Director of Horticulture; and Liz Hood, Director of Education. Here is what I learned.
What is the age range of most committee members?
At the TBG, committees and their board are made up mostly of ‘mature’ people over 55 years of age. Most of these are female. The RBG could not answer [?]
Is there a need to get more young people [in their 20’s through their 40’s] involved in programs?
The ever enthusiastic Paul Zammit responded with, “I would love to engage a younger demographic in our committee in order to help get a better understanding of how they view and value public gardens and what they (and their children) would want from it. We need a better understanding of the role and function of public gardens.”
At the RBG they are actively looking to botanical gardens in Europe for examples of how to engage young people with social events that are typically after-hours: garden parties, music nights, gala dinners, and the like.
What is the biggest challenge where attracting youth to your organization is concerned?
The operators of public gardens have created a wide variety of events and programs that provide a safe learning environment where members/students can express their own ideas and opinions, be social with others their own age, and have fun. [ed. I was pleased to the mention of fun… so often we take this business of gardening much too seriously for the uninitiated.]
The list of children’s programs available is long at both the Toronto and RoyalBotanical Gardens. Highlights include:
RBG features a once a month ‘family’ activity including an Apple Day, Family Solstice Celebration, Hickory Dickory Dock, and more. These programs are designed to teach every family member about a natural feature, species, or time of year/season in their local environment.
In addition, the RBG provides children’s programs for kids aged 3-12, plus the Outdoors Club for ages 12 – 15, the Junior Naturalists Club for 7-12 year olds, plus summer long Discovery day camps, curriculum-connected school programs, and school programs via videoconference.
At the Toronto Botanical Garden Liz Hood becomes quite animated in her response to this question, “In a recent poll of Horticultural Societies I did for KewGardens [London, England], I spoke to many groups who found that aging membership was becoming a significant problem. A few groups decided to tackle this by developing community outreach initiatives like collaborating with school and community groups. Other groups made successful inroads in the surrounding multicultural communities and welcomed new members from those cultural groups.”
Liz adds, “Cultural diversity in our horticultural institutions is as important as diversity in age.” A good point and perhaps fodder for a future article here.
Some of the programs offered by the TBG that are directed to children include:
1] Programs for school groups for pre-KG to grade 4
2] March break and summer camps for kids aged 5 to 11 years old
3] Family and special events for children aged 1 to 11 years old.
Each year the TBG welcomes over 6,000 kids through their programs. All are nature-based, interactive, experiential, and for visiting school groups, designed to support the Ontario elementary school curriculum.
It is important to note that almost half of the visiting youth are children from Toronto’s under-resourced, priority neighbourhoods, who, through the generosity of TBG donors, are able to access programs free of charge.
Of all of the activities aimed at families and children, you might want to look for the upcoming Harvest Day, Family Hike in a Bag [complete with backpacks and family discovery maps], and the Halloween Howl. Details on their website at http://torontobotanicalgarden.ca/.
Both botanical gardens provide opportunities for post secondary aged people to join in their summer paid internships programs. At the RBG they host 45 students each summer and at the TBG, 30 interns. I suggest that you get your application in early if this experience appeals to you [or pass the information on to someone that you know].
All of this is to say that there ARE many activities at the two botanical gardens that are designed to engage youth. For the most part they are full and pre-booked.
However this does not answer the question ‘where are the youth?’ where our volunteer base is concerned. Liz points out that busy young parents are not exactly in a place where they have a lot of disposable time for volunteerism: she reminded me that I was rather busy when our four kids where youngsters.
Final word then to the eloquent Paul, “Young people are desperately needed! I believe our future relevancy will depend on identifying what young people hope to experience from their garden visit. I also believe for younger people, gardens have a different purpose and set of values. They [the young generation] are our conduit to more responsible horticultural practices and to developing environmentally sound behaviours.”
On this we all agree: the key to the future of gardening lies in its connection to food and the environment.
Stay tuned as this discussion is far from over.
For details of programs go to
Question of the Week
Q/ I bought Fall Lawn Fertilizer on sale last week. When do I apply it?
A/ Fall Lawn Fertilizer is formulated for late season application. This means, the month of November. I wait to apply Fall Lawn Fertilizer until the day before the Grey Cup.