Studying river ecology has its rewards on a hot day.
Many readers have written to me asking how to get teens involved in gardening. This challenge is very near and dear to my heart because for years I coordinated environmental science programs for youth at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The biggest hurdle is to revive their sense of wonder. Our fast-paced, materialistic society bombards us with shock-and-awe entertainment. Parents, mentors, and educators have the tough assignment of making science as relevant and exciting to youth as pop star dating scandals. It's tough to scrape away enough cynicism and sensationalism to get kids to make connections between gardening and their lives.
Teens are a tricky group. They are striving to find their identity and place in the world and therefore experience different societal pressures than younger kids. Teens are developing social consciousness but they are still fairly myopic and insecure. Many rebel against authority and seek to embrace counterculture. It's difficult to get them to embrace gardening through aesthetics or altruism.
Pick the low-hanging fruit first. Food is an easy place to start, and it's surprising that the average youth does not readily make the connection between the supermarket and the soil. Fashion is another topic that can engage teens with plants. Most fabrics come from natural materials. Silk, cotton, hemp, linen, wool, and leather are all directly or indirectly linked to agricultural products. Medicine, cosmetics, and art supplies have plant-based elements.
Broadening the term "gardening" to "greening" can help. "Green" has a more hip connotation. It encompasses gardening, farming, and environmentally sustainable practices, among other activities. It's easy to find examples of interconnectedness so there are more entry points for youth to find relevance. For example, factory emissions and a lack of trees contribute to asthma cases in New York; erosion and runoff in Missouri contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; overfishing off the coast of Namibia contributes to jellyfish hordes in the south Atlantic; monoculture agriculture contributes to the use of genetically modified plants; using food crops for fuel contributes to high grocery prices; leaving unnecessary lights on contributes to air pollution; clear-cutting American forests contributes to reduced biodiversity. These are all “green” issues that directly affect people's lives.
Removing invasive species of plants yields immediate as well as long-term results, and gives volunteers a sense of accomplishment.
Encourage young people to analyze issues and then brainstorm actions they can take to ease the problems: helping to clean a river or creek, removing invasive species from a forest or prairie, sowing native seeds to transplant to wild spaces, raising silkworm caterpillars and the plants they need, growing vegetables and herbs for a local food pantry, participating in phytoremediation projects on soil that is deficient or mildly contaminated (nothing hazardous), or tracking the agricultural origins of the natural fibers and dyes in their clothing. The activity may be one small step, but in the broader context they are positively affecting their world.
The nightly news also can be a source of inspiration. Chicago recently had a cougar strolling through its neighborhoods. This presents a great opportunity to discuss wildlife migration, conservation biology, and loss of natural habitat. While you might not want to focus on restoring cougar habitat, a related project would be to create a garden sanctuary for migratory birds or butterflies.
Also investigate other youth programs and borrow their ideas. Botanic gardens, arboretums, park districts, and forest preserves typically have greening programs. These types of opportunities to be active and socialize in informal outdoor settings can engage teens and plant those seeds of lifelong stewardship of a garden ... and their world.