meet travis cox, age 17, ‘the garden scout’

YOU KNOW HOW IT GOES: You open your email and have to weed out the invasive solicitations and spam first. But then sometimes you get rewarded, like I did last Oct. 8 after clicking on a message with the subject line “website advice.”

“I am Travis Cox, gardener and lover of all things outdoors,” it began. “I am in the 11th grade. I’m the youngest Master Gardener in my state (became a MG’er in 2014) and am interested in starting a website to share my love of gardening with the world.”

And this: “I am 17 years old and I have gardened all my life.”

Travis’s timing was impeccable. Just days before, a 30-something garden friend and I had been talking about a subject that troubles not just us, but the entire horticulture industry: Will subsequent generations take to gardening like my generation, and my parents’ and grandparents’ did? Even at his age, my 30-something friend is something of an oddity when he stares out at lecture halls full of people twice his age at garden events where he’s the speaker.

Where is the succession plan in all those auditoriums of people my age and older whom we both address?

And then Travis Cox appeared, as if to quiet our fears.

I think I surprised Travis when I suggested we meet on Skype so he could tell me more, the first of a string of continuing conversations. I would later learn that our calls also apparently achieved a small first step in one mission-statement item on the About page of the new WordPress website Travis has built for himself, The Garden Scout.

The About page says that Travis, “…wishes to bridge the gap between older, more experienced gardeners and younger gardeners seeking to explore the world of plants through interacting with nature.”


BETWEEN REALLY SERIOUS plant talk—”Have you ever grown Paris polyphylla?” he asks, referring to a fairly obscure, truly weird-looking Chinese Trillium cousin, because his has lain dormant for a year after transplanting and he is worried—I learn that he enjoys home-schooling. Besides a structured curriculum that includes a book a week (one recent stretch: “Jane Eyre,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Robinson Crusoe”) he also takes courses at the local community college.

I learn too, that he lives on the cusp of Zone 7b and 8a in northern Louisiana, which is “not swampy or bayous, but slightly hilly—the real mountains start up toward Arkansas.” That there are massive water oaks (Quercus nigra) all around, but also a stand of giant bamboo that somebody let loose (uh-oh). That he made his first garden in 2008, with an assist by his information technologist father (and a tiller). That his mother is a wildlife biologist.

That he dreams of studying landscape architecture. I hear that designer-DNA surfacing when Travis talks about his works-in-progress:

“My own garden is pretty much just one great, big experiment,” he says. “I like formal structure and classic design, but modern elements, such as grasses and informal plantings, are also part of the plan. In 2014, I ripped out all of the existing plants and began to remake my garden, one space at a time.”

So far, he has “a fully functioning organic vegetable garden, a beginning woodland garden, and a large garden that houses all the rest of my ornamental and edible oddities.” A small orchard borders one side of the garden, and is surrounded by a large field.

“I’m already thinking of what I could do with that field!” (Oh how I miss my own Manifest Destiny days, listening to that expansive thinking.)

I hear about the car trip to Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina that ranks among the best vacations ever—well, at least for Travis.

“We had to practically drag my sister along, because she’s not interested in plants—but she’s used to it by now,” he admits.

That he’s been giving his first talks to garden clubs (topics include “basic cottage gardening”) and has 2,600-plus followers on Instagram. And that he loves the garden writing of the late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter in England.

What? We read the same stuff? Who told him about Christo, anyhow?

“My library has a huge gardening section, thankfully,” he says, “so I’d bring home armloads every week. I like to just research stuff, and in a Beth Chatto book I stumbled across a reference to him—and of course I had to go find out more.”

The thought that Travis Cox of Louisiana, age 17, is reading Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd makes me less afraid for the world.

Speaking of books, a Travis-ism:

“My garden always keeps me on my toes as to what will happen next, kind of like a well-written book.” (A whole essay on why he gardens is at this link.)

OUR CALLS are punctuated with wide-ranging questions, beyond the cultural needs of that recalcitrant Paris: What WordPress plug-ins do I use for extra functionality on my website? Do I have any solutions for hedge bindweed, which we both suffer from? Do I know Pam Penick, the Austin-based blogger he much admires?

And I have my own questions, including the obvious ones about what brought Travis to the garden.

“When I was younger, my family would often take me out in my grandparent’s garden and teach me the names of various plants, like maple, magnolia, rose, etc.,” he says. “They always thought it important that I grow up being outdoors and build up real-life experiences doing things that would help me in the long run, not just sitting inside playing video games for hours a day like I see some of my generation doing.”

Can he recall his first plant? Seeds for magenta four-o-clocks, Mirabilis jalapa, were a gift from his grandfather, and he still grows them.

His latest plants? Tropical arums; species calla lilies; senna (in the border above with canna and more, Senna alata, the popcorn plant); lots of asters (despite fighting the disease of aster yellows); an African horned melon he ordered accidentally; a recent experiment with growing sugarcane (all the way through to making syrup), and the list goes on.

Is there one thing Travis doesn’t, or wouldn’t like to, grow?

Do I want to hear a funny story? he asks, in response. Do tell.

“Everyone here is obsessed with growing tomatoes, but I am sensitive to tomatoes, so I don’t eat them,” he says.

We have the Skype video function turned off, but I can tell that he is grinning now.

“When they ask ‘What kind of tomatoes do you grow?’ I say, ‘I don’t.’”

No surprise, since there is not a thing that is mundane or expected about Travis Cox, Master Gardener. Nothing at all, a fact for which I am very grateful.

I hope that you will go meet him, as I have, and say hello.

  1. Charlie says:

    What a great story! So glad to hear about a new generation of gardeners! Thanks for sharing, Margaret. I’ve already started following This Garden Scout on instagram!

  2. Ann says:

    I joined too! This is refreshing to know! My son recently told me the greenhouse at his high school is a storage area! I get so sad when I see no green inside those beautiful structures at other schools as well.

  3. Loni says:

    Very exciting. I am the leader of a youth garden club (in upstate NY zone 3b) – we are heading into our 23rd year!! We have had young gardeners leave us to pursue horticulture in college. I encourage adult gardeners to mentor the next generation. It is very rewarding. Thank you for this story!!!

  4. Karen T. says:

    I love reading his story! What an exciting young man enjoying a gardening life! I too subscribed to his blog. It will be fun to see his passion/garden grow through the years. I’m 79 and I’m so thankful that I can play in the garden! Ok, it’s getting harder for me, but I’m not going to let that get me down. I thrive out there as its my passion!
    Thanks for introducing us to him Margaret. I’ve read your blog for years and always wish I could see your garden in person, but love visiting by awaytogarden! Also love your spots with Joe Lamp’l. I’ve learned so much from him too! Snowing here today, but spring is coming soon, and I’m so ready!

  5. Bill Plummer says:

    What a wonderful young gardener. As a scout I became interested in our native wildflowers. My dad had a great garden in a large hilly back yard with all sorts of plants on the terraces and slopes, I did some grunt work for him, but did not get into gardening until we built our home on a heavily wooded lot some fifty yeas ago.. I am in my 90’s and looking forward to this spring and the years left to me.

  6. Indie says:

    How impressive! How great to have found his passion at such a young age, too. I am in my 30’s, and there are several of us ‘younger’ people in my garden club, all in leadership positions, which is nice to see. I do think a lot of the younger people I see getting into gardening are enticed by growing their own food. We are lucky in that the local community farm works with the local schools, and kids get to grow food as part of their curriculum. Vegetable gardening is making a come-back, and that leads to more gardening and awareness of the environment in general.

    1. margaret says:

      I am encouraged to hear from you, Indie, and agree that homegrown food is the biggest attraction. 30-something visitors do come to my Open Days in the garden, which always delights me, but most of the garden clubs and garden center and and Master Gardener audiences I meet when I go lecturing are my age or older. Nice to be able to see your website and what you are interested in, so thanks for saying hello.

  7. I totally get it. We have a customer who started coming here at age 14 and was incredibly knowledgeable. His grandfather or his mother drove him from the neighboring state. His adult goal was to hybridize wheat, corn etc. I hooked him up with a fabulous flower hybridizer near his house where he now works part time hybridizing flowers – Intrinsic Gardens – Brent Horvath was smart enough to give him hybridizing work (instead of potting, weeding etc. , altho there’s nothing wrong with these). Makes me happy whenever I think about it.

  8. Pam/Digging says:

    I know what you mean: gardeners, at least those with public faces, do tend to skew older. I used to think of myself as a young gardener in my late 30s and early 40s, if that tells you anything. Now, hearing about 17-year-old Travis, with his apparently boundless curiosity and appetite for the natural world and gardening and (not least) sharing about it — well, it just makes me happy! And I’m honored to know that my own blog is on his radar. We’re practically neighbors, being Louisiana and Texas residents, and I’m hopeful that I’ll meet him in person one day. Thanks for sharing about him and his blog, Margaret.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for saying so, Eleise. It has been such a great adventure for me to get to know him, and such a bright spot as I said.

  9. Kim says:

    So glad you introduced us to such a fine young gardener! I have already visited his website and commented. We need to cheer on this next generation of gardeners!

  10. Lauren says:

    I worked at a special ed school in New Rochelle, NY and started a gardening program for some of my students. They LOVED picking any edible and taking it home. I grew up in the South Bronx and got turned on to gardening by accident when my brother and I were running around in the woods in NYBG and when leaving we saw the brochure for Gardencrafters. It cost $3.00 per kid for the whole season and was a billion times better than what they have their now. I hated tomatoes, peas, etc until I grew my own and had to taste them! My brother and I each love gardening to this day and I have no doubt there are a myriad of other ungerminated future gardeners lying dormant in urban areas with zero space and sun. Good for Travis! I hope his movement can extend into urban areas too!

  11. Louise says:

    So very cool. I think gardening came to me with a house ten years ago, and quite a bit older. But my daughters are interested. I hope they enjoy what we have. Keep looking and sharing what you find.

  12. heidih says:

    I think we do have a younger gardener gneration. Some fueled by the grow your own produce and others by exposure to cool plants. At the Cactus & Succulent Show & in a pot really but it is a start. At the sales at the Huntington I see SO many young people. They are out there!!

  13. Dee A Nash says:

    That made my heart soar. I’ve worried about passing on garden love and knowledge for a long time. Thank you, Margaret. You know, he reminds me a little of a young Kelly Norris.~~Dee

    1. margaret says:

      Agree, Dee, and thanks for saying hello and adding that thought. I have young farmer friends here and in some way we share the plant passion, so that helps me feel less bleak, but the garden club audiences and even Master Gardener audiences I mostly go speak to are mostly older. Go Travis!

  14. Holmes says:

    How awesome that you featured Travis. I certainly hope to introduce my 13 year old botanist/artist to him one day. They are definitely kindred spirits. In fact, we plan to spend spring break visiting Plant Delights! My son attended our local horticultural symposium with me last week for his second year…he is by far the youngest attendee. It’s been a wonderful way for him to be inspired and to meet fellow plantsmen including several of the guest speakers.

    1. margaret says:

      How lucky of your son to have this encourage — and I suspect the Plant Delights adventure will be amazing. I have known Tony a very long time, and I always love his stories of when he was a very young man (boy, even) how the outdoors was always his main attraction. And look where that led! : )

  15. Rosie says:

    Margaret – you are wonderful for sharing Travis with us. I love that he knew you, reached out and that you provided guidance. I think it’s what I love about gardening – I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t want to share… I’m attending a lecture with Fergus Garrett in April that I can barely contain myself about, so it was super fun to catch your podcast on Matthew Biggs (I already had his book and had just re-read the piece on Christo). Sorry I’m off on a tangent but I thank my lucky stars for you. And now Travis, with his FEARLESS enthusiasm. Love that.

  16. Kathy F. says:

    Do you think Travis knew to wear that cranberry colored top among the orange flowers? That photo caught my eye and I had to read all about him. I know that’s probably his cutting garden and I think I saw a zinnia lower left but what are the orange flowers with the blue green foliage? I did leave him a message but at 17 he’s probably in school? It will drive me crazy all day. They look so familiar. My mental filing cabinet is too full.

  17. It is so wonderful to read your conversation with Travis. What an impressive, heartening young man. I look forward to following his work and – yes – learning from him, too! Thanks for introducing him, Margaret.

  18. Ann Lamb says:

    I am simply green with envy! Look at all that wealth–of space, of encouragement, of time to express Travis’ passion for gardening! Of youth! And a “day job” almost surely with plants in his near future.

  19. Rebecca says:

    What a great read!
    I just mailed three separate envelopes of seeds to three Grandchildren, one loves hot peppers, one is my cucumber queen, and the third has a very short list of veggies she eats but radishes make the list.
    Travis proves you never know what will grow from a gift of seeds.
    Thank you Margaret for putting your spotlight on Travis.

  20. Linda says:

    Trying to instill a love of gardening in my grandchildren as my grandmother and father did in me with out even realizing it. Planting simple seeds and watching them grow and sniffing and munching on herbs have been fascinating to my 3 year old granddaughter. It’s never too early.

  21. Virginia Theoret says:

    Thankyou, Margaret, for giving so generously of your time to pass on Your gardening expertise along withyour guest writers.I have learned so much
    these passed 6-8 years .I have a zone 4 garden in Ottawa ,Canada.
    Our world has become an unsettled and scarey place and it is wonderful to visit
    Your website every Sunday and find peace and joy in the conversations about
    a beautiful flower and a bountiful garden and I still make your Clafoutis!
    I have your books and look forward to your new one coming out.

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