Top 10 Gardening Trends of the Last Decade

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Architect Jim Collins designed this French-style house in North Carolina. The garden hosts hardy plants that can take the Southern heat.

Architect Jim Collins designed this French-style house in North Carolina. The garden hosts hardy plants that can take the Southern heat. (Photo: Eric Roth)

Most people don’t realize it, but gardening has trends much like fashion. As Heidi Klum likes to intone on the hit show Project Runway: “In the world of fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.” And it’s true—over the years, plants that once fascinated our parents (think big golden French marigolds) today almost never appear in our gardens. Ways of doing things change as well: Look at our dramatic return to manures and compost in preference to chemical fertilizers over the past 10 years. Here, then, are some of the runway winners and losers of the last decade.

1. Heirlooms Debunked

The 1990s and 2000s were alive with wholesale praise of heirlooms (I should know, as I was one of the leading proponents) but these days, the bloom is off the rose. Old, we have rediscovered, is not necessarily better, as those of you who have struggled to grow heirloom-variety tomatoes in an age of resurgent late blight have found to your dismay. There were reasons—often good reasons—why certain cultivars were abandoned (no disease resistance, for one), and we’ve learned as gardeners that we can’t blindly embrace a romantic vision of our gardening past. The quest before us now is bringing the best of the old into the future, which I predict will shape plant selection over the next decade.

2. Urban Growing Spaces

Everywhere you turn today in our large cities, you see a plenitude of micro-landscapes: miniature gardening plots for veggies, colorful planters of summer annuals, even pocket public parks no bigger than a house lot. We’ve come to realize that in an age of growing stress on the environment, every little bit of green helps in urban settings.

3. The Use of Tropicals and Succulents

A decade ago, you would have searched nurseries in vain for plants like mandevilla or faucaria tigrina, but these days you’ll see shelf after shelf of new and interesting warm-weather species intended for use as annuals outdoors, or as long-term indoor-outdoor plants—another growing trend. Even grandma’s favorites, like coleus, have been reinvented in a mind-boggling array of colors and leaf shapes.

4. Growing Awareness of Sustainable Gardening

Gardeners are slowly becoming aware that even a hobby like horticulture bears its share of environmental costs. There’s a lot of petroleum in every plant you buy, from the plastic pot it arrives in to the fertilizer used to grow it to the fuel required to get it to the nursery and then to your backyard. Fortunately, the last 10 years have produced a growing awareness of these environmental costs, and the industry has begun to work to make sure that where steps can be taken—such as the recycling of plastic pots or the development of battery-powered mowers—they are implemented widely and conveniently for the consumer.

Low-maintenance plants thrive in this shady garden designed by Janice Parker.

Low-maintenance plants thrive in this shady garden designed by Janice Parker. (Photo: Courtesy of Janice Parker Design)

5. The Gardening Internet

A friend of mine in the computer industry once told me that the original financial mainstays of companies like AOL and CompuServe were dating and gardening chat rooms. And it’s true: Early on, gardeners embraced the Internet like almost no other group, with countless sites charting everything from local growing conditions to fan clubs for specific cultivars. An unintended consequence, however, has been the virtual collapse of garden book publishing. When detailed information on a species is just a few clicks away, who needs a specialty volume on clematis?

6. Rise of Organic Produce

Love them or hate them, organics are here to stay. Once a tiny fraction of produce gardening world, organics have come to dominate whole sectors. What’s to hate about that, you ask? Primarily the cost: at two to three times the price of their conventionally grown counterparts, we face a growing segregation of food consumers into those who can afford organics and those who can’t. Hopefully, technological progress in the next decade will work toward minimizing this growing social gap.

7. The Ever-Shrinking Lawn

The manicured lawn has been in steady retreat over the last 10 years, to the point where these days, acres of verdant, weedless greensward mark you as an environmentally uniformed Luddite. The message that a large lawn is a large lawn, not a landscape, has finally struck home, and hopefully this movement will continue.

8. Xeriscapes

Potable water looks to become the premier endangered resource of the 21st century, and landscapes have at last started to respond. In places like Las Vegas, the city pays people to remove water-hungry grass and replace it with native plantings, and in California, facing its most severe drought in a century, outdoor watering has been banned in many areas. And high time, too: a lush English-style garden in Arizona should be as out of place as a stand of saguaros would look in London. We as gardeners need to continue to heed the oft-neglected dictum that landscape should reflect its location.

9. After-Dark Gardens

It used to be that when the sun went down, you turned of the porch light and went indoors. But the advent of inexpensive low-voltage lighting (some even solar-powered) has changed all that, and the past decade has witnessed a surge in the creation of outdoor spaces that are meant to be used after dark.

10. Composting

There’s nothing new about composting, of course; it is perhaps the world’s oldest gardening practice. What is new in the last decade is the extent to which it is now being applied. Many cities have mandatory composting programs for food waste, and gardeners across America have come to realize that one of the easiest and best ways to increase the productivity of our landscapes is to return to the soil what comes from the soil.