Droves of stuck-at-home families started food gardens and carved relaxation areas out of their yards this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gardening trend-watchers say those will carry over as the biggest two gardening trends on the 2021 horizon as well.
As we close the door on 2020, here’s the dirt on everything that trend-watchers see in their compost-stained crystal balls:
Another big vegetable year
Edible gardening surged in 2020 as shoppers saw dwindling grocery shelves and figured this pandemic year might be a good time to grow their own.
“While this has been trending for several years, a spike occurred with COVID-19 and the resulting issues with food accessibility and security,” said Andrew Bunting, vice president of public horticulture for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
“More people were cooking at home instead of going out, so they wanted their own fresh produce to try,” adds Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau.
“Research shows we picked up 16 million new gardeners during COVID-19, many of whom are under 35,” said Katie Dubow, author of the Chester County-based Garden Media Group’s 2021 Garden Trends Report.
She says that more than two-thirds of adults are now growing at least some vegetables, herbs, and/or fruits – or are planning to do so in 2021.
Another measure was the more than 18,000 people who watched live or recorded sessions of Penn State Extension’s 10-part webinar “Victory Garden Reinvented.”
“After experiencing the self-satisfaction of growing high-quality, delicious fruit and vegetables, gardeners will continue this trend in 2021,” predicts Nancy Knauss, Penn State’s statewide Master Gardener Coordinator.
PHS’s Bunting goes a step further. “This phenomenal return to vegetable gardening will only gain more steam in 2021,” he says.
At the very least, says Hershey Gardens horticulture specialist Alyssa Hagarman, edible interest is likely to remain high “with young adults who are very eco-conscious.”
All of those new gardeners hungered for information on how to grow edibles and more – and that trend is likely to continue, too – if not grow – in 2021.
“The new gardener is ripe for education, from simple plant lists or Facebook consulting services to installation and care tips,” said Dubow.
According to Greenhouse Grower magazine, online page views on home and garden sites shot up 76 percent this year.
Google data showed searches for gardening topics were up 39 percent, and searches for the term “victory garden” hit an all-time high on April 5.
“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in interest in online videos,” said David Wilson, a horticulturist who has been churning out new best-plant videos all year for Overdevest Nurseries. “I think we’re going to see even more demand for information about plants and especially how-to videos. People are looking for quick, easy information that helps them be more successful.”
Yards as escapes
The other big COVID-fueled change is a surge in yard upgrades.
“COVID restrictions elevated the importance of outdoor gathering spaces,” said Penn State’s Knauss. “And using plants to create an inviting and beautiful setting became popular.”
Both DIY and hired-landscaper projects skyrocketed in 2020 as a wave of homeowners diverted dining-out and travel money into improving their outdoor-living space.
“There’s always been a strong demand for outdoor living, but mainly in higher-dollar projects,” said Ted Ventre, owner of Hively Landscapes in Dover and chairman of the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association. “What we’re seeing now is demand that’s proliferating across the budgetary spectrum.”
He says people want outdoor kitchens, outdoor speakers, outdoor TVs, and especially an outdoor fireplace or firepit to gather around.
“I think every design we did this year had a fire feature of some sort,” Ventre said. “People want to gather socially, but they’ve wanted to do it outside… They’re looking for a holistic area where they can relax… sort of like a living room, only outside.”
Hagarman said many homeowners are making even modest additions in the name of relaxation and meditation.
“A simple bench or a few chairs placed under a shade tree or in a quiet corner of the yard are all you need,” she said, adding that gardens, pots, fire features, and “meditation circles” are optional enhancements. “This year, Hershey Gardens created a meditation circle for guests who want to stop and enjoy some quiet time in thought or prayer,” Hagarman said. “We placed several 1,000-pound rocks in a large circle. Homeowners don’t need to use heavy rocks. Chairs or cushions will also work.”
Even more houseplants
Houseplants have been a trend the last few years, and their popularity is showing no sign of abating.
The theory is that because Millennials are delaying child-rearing and often living in rented apartments and condos, they see houseplants as a convenient, space-saving way to grow plants as well as a way to connect to nature and nurture.
Dubow says COVID-19 fueled houseplant interest because people were home more, were looking to add life to the many first-time home work spaces, and bought houseplants as backdrops for Zoom and other virtual meetings that skyrocketed in 2020.
That’s likely to continue at least until we’re out and around again and meeting face to face instead of virtually.
Growing edibles indoors?
“There will continue to be a rising demand for indoor gardening but more than just houseplants,” said Blazek. “The new gardeners will want to grow their own food indoors.”
A National Garden Bureau survey of nearly 2,000 gardeners and gardening professionals found that growing herbs indoors is especially on many radars.
“People want herbs in the kitchen so they can cook with them, snip them right off at meal time, and serve them fresh,” Blazek said.
A new twist is miniaturized herbs and veggies bred specifically for indoor growing.
PanAmerican Seed, for example, is introducing a line of “Kitchen Minis,” which are small-sized potted tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables designed to grow year round on sunny windowsills without supplemental lights.
The varieties are “bred to bloom and ripen in pots as small as eight inches and in lower light conditions so you can have fresh flavors any time of year,” says Josh Kirschenbaum, PanAmerican’s vegetables account manager.
Dubow says miniature plants in general are increasingly popular with the many young gardeners who live in apartments or small homes “and struggle to squeeze large leafy friends onto crowded windowsills.”
How and where we get plants
One somewhat lasting change related to COVID is where and how we get plants.
Since so many people had to shift their usual in-store shopping plans this spring, garden centers innovated by offering curbside pickups and home deliveries.
Web-based services such as ShrubBucket and BloomBox, which deliver plants directly from growers to homes via online ordering, flourished.
And as with most every other product, way more people bought plants and gardening products from online vendors. According to Bazaarvoice, a technology company that specializes in e-commerce software, order counts for home and garden products shot up 75 percent from a year ago.
No one’s quite sure how much of that will continue once virus fears fade, but the convenience factor makes it likely that at least some of this trend will stick.
Gardeners might also see a tighter supply of plants in 2021 since growers’ stock was depleted more than anticipated during the 2020 banner sales year.
Garden centers found their inventories “picked over” more than usual and couldn’t always get what they wanted as growers began to limit quantities so as not to eat into future supplies.
Unlike goods made in factories, it can take two or three years to grow a sellable-size perennial and four or more years to bring shrubs and trees to retail size.
- Read George’s column on how COVID led to a banner year for gardening in 2020
“Rainscaping” and tougher plants
“With global climate change and extremes in weather ever increasing, it’s important to select plants that can tolerate extreme drought or extreme wet,” said PHS’s Bunting. “Gardeners will seek those plants that are ‘tough’ and resilient to many climatic conditions.”
- Read George’s column on how the changing climate is affecting gardening
He sees an increase in roll-with-the-punches choices like the Kentucky coffee tree, which can deal with dry, compacted soil but also tolerates occasional flooding and wet soil.
Penn State Extension just introduced a new Watershed-Friendly Property program that encourages residents to recraft their yards in ways that manage water smartly, both coming into the yard and leaving it.
Strategies include gravitating toward drought-tough native plants, covering soil with mulch, installing rain gardens to capture runoff, and reducing pesticide use, cleaning up after pets, and cutting down on lawn fertilizer to limit pollutants in runoff.
Smaller lawns, more pollinators
Related to the above, garden trend-watchers see increased interest in shrinking our lawns in favor of garden beds.
“There is still a passion and nostalgia for lawns,” says NGB’s Blazek, “however, lawns are probably going to be much smaller in the past.”
Planted beds absorb rain better than lawns, but Bunting believes a bigger driving force is a trend toward eco-friendliness and especially diverse plantings that aid pollinators.
As the message hits home about dwindling pollinator populations, Bunting says it’s becoming “increasingly important to create home gardening habitats that promote native wildlife, birds, and pollinators.”
Lawns aren’t very inviting to most wildlife this side of beetle grubs and sod webworms.
Penn State’s H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens will become a model for habitat gardening next spring when it opens a new three-acre Pollinator and Bird Garden with some 90,000 plants.
“Nobody has ever tried to do what we’re going to try to do here, and that is attract every single species of native pollinator in this region,” says Penn State Arboretum Director Kim Steiner. “And that’s several hundred species of insects.”