Gardening and the products that go with it might be noticeably more expensive, but prices don’t seem to be turning people away from America’s No. 1 outdoor activity.
The National Gardening Association’s 2023 National Gardening Survey found an estimated 80 percent of American households are taking part in some sort of lawn or gardening activity – a five-year high.
About one-third of gardeners say they’re spending more to keep pace with higher prices, while others say they’re coping by trimming back on discretionary costs, especially in the areas of flower gardening and lawn care.
Houseplant growing checks in as the type of gardening showing the biggest growth, NGA’s survey found.
What’s on the gardening horizon as we head into 2024? Here are a dozen forecasts from gardening trends-watchers:
More than just pretty plants
A big-picture trend (mentioned by several sources) involves a change in the whole underlying purpose motivating people to garden in the first place.
Dr. Alyssa Collins, director of Penn State University’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Lancaster County, calls it a “vibe shift” in which gardeners are viewing their yards as more than just a collection of pretty plants and instead a key part in the overall health of local wildlife, the surrounding ecosystem, and the planet in general.
That rethink, Collins says, is behind a bevy of specific trends, such as planting more native plants to help pollinators, a move away from heavy-handed garden cleanups that disrupt the habitats of beneficial insects, and less or no spraying.
Andrew Bunting, vice president of horticulture for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, sees the shift as “gardening practices that put the environment first.”
He cites trends such as composting or leaving the leaves in yards to reduce landfill waste, switching from gas-powered lawn-and-garden equipment to battery-operated types, “rewilding” parts of lawn into eco-friendlier meadows, and creating habitats for beneficial insects instead of the past norm of spraying anything that crawls.
- Read more on how to replace lawns with four more diverse alternatives
Young gardeners in particular are gravitating to enviro-friendly gardening practices, says Katie Dubow, president of the Chester County-based Garden Media Group, a public-relations firm specializing in the garden industry.
The changing climate is a leading driver of concern for that age group, she says.
Garden Media Group’s 2024 Garden Trends Report found that 67 percent of young Americans (aged 18 to 23) are experiencing “eco-anxiety” – a chronic fear of an environmental cataclysm.
“Eco-anxiety is real,” says Dubow. “People feel stress, worry, and bleakness over climate change.”
As a result, a similar percentage of that age group (68 percent) plans to make positive climate impacts in their gardening, such as leaning more toward lower-input native plants, planting more trees, and being willing to pay more and wait longer for sustainable products that are of better quality.
PHS’s Bunting says gardeners also are increasingly trying to counteract the impact of climate change one yard at a time by choosing more heat- and drought-tolerant plants, adopting water-saving practices, and installing low-care gravel gardens and rock gardens.
- Read more on how to adjust gardening in a changing climate
Another trend being fueled by environmental concern is how to manage water in our increasingly erratic swings between droughts and floods.
Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau, says more and more gardeners are installing rain gardens and taking other steps to “rainscape” their properties.
Rain gardens are beds built to collect and absorb rain rather than the current norm of directing flows into storm-water systems and ultimately creeks, streams, and rivers.
Other rainscaping practices include mulching bare ground, selecting plants best suited to known dry or wet sites, and limiting pollutants in run-off by reducing fertilizer, reducing pesticides, and cleaning up after pets.
- Read more on how to “rainscape” your yard
Only native plants?
There’s apparently a bit of disconnect going on between the enviro-fueled desire to plant more native plants and what gardeners are actually planting, says Adams County garden designer Erica Shaffer.
“I’m hearing a lot of people saying they want only native plants for their gardens and landscape,” she says. “Yet many are still asking that I include things like hydrangeas or butterfly bushes. I love that the phrase ‘native plants’ is on the streets, but I’m noticing that’s still a growing awareness.”
Dauphin County Master Gardener Joan Brandt says this ties into the bigger question of “How native do we need to be?” that eco-conscious gardeners are struggling with these days.
She says some gardeners have decided on straight-species native plants only, some are OK with cultivars of native species (“nativars”), and some are just trying to add more natives in general along with non-natives they like.
“Gardeners love introducing new plants to the garden, and the industry produces new ‘nativars’ each year,” Brandt says. “But how do we know which to plant and why?”
University of Washington horticulture professor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott believes gardeners are gradually concluding that non-invasive, non-native plants can and should be part of a diverse, eco-friendly garden.
In a 2023 report in the Journal of Environmental Horticulture, she writes: “Contrary to popular belief, native species are not the only choices for sustainable and biodiverse landscapes… Native species can be part of this scenario, but they can and should be supplemented with carefully chosen, non-invasive, introduced ornamentals that tolerate site conditions and add to species diversity.”
- Read more on why being an eco-friendly gardener is not as simple as just planting all native plants
Embracing and celebrating bugs
Gardeners and bugs aren’t always the best of friends, but another enviro-concern trend is a growing appreciation for the benefits of bugs, says Jody Santos, the manager of conservatory habitats at Hershey Gardens.
“There seems to be a stronger focus lately on the insect world, especially by people interested in gardening,” Santos says, pointing to increased attention to bugs online, in gardening articles, and in the sale of bug-themed merchandise.
“Although people still want to know which bad bugs to stomp on, such as spotted lanternfly, and which good ones to save, such as monarchs and bees, gardeners seem to be developing more of an appreciation of the important role of all insects in nature, even the ‘pesty’ ones,” Santos says.
- Read the PennLive roundup on where more than 40 common garden bugs go in winter
Improving the front yard
If online searches are any indication, 2024 is shaping up as a boom year for front-yard improvements and re-do’s, says the National Garden Bureau’s Blazek.
“We saw home gardeners and decorators sprucing up their backyard spaces during COVID-19 to provide that outdoor sanctuary,” she says. “Now the front yard is getting the love.”
Blazek says NGB’s search of search terms turned up phrases such as “garden front of house entrance” and “front-door transformation.”
“There are a lot of searches for compact plants to coincide with that search,” she adds, “and we see a search for plants for privacy in place of hardscapes and fencing.”
Houseplants: The next generation
That large wave of “plant parents” that got interested in houseplants during the COVID-19 pandemic is graduating into the next step – rare and unusual houseplants.
Apparently, the more common and usual fare is no longer cutting it.
“Specialty and rare houseplants are seriously hot right now, with new plant parents shelling out serious green for their new foliage friends,” writes horticulture consultant Leslie Halleck in Greenhouse Management magazine.
“Collector” plants such as variegated monsteras, dark-leaf philodendrons, and velvet-leafed anthuriums are the rage – sometimes fetching prices in the hundreds of dollars – instead of yesteryear’s cheap and basic peace lilies and snake plants.
In a survey of more than 1,000 houseplant buyers, Michigan State University horticulture professor Dr. Bridget Behe found that social media is fueling this “explosive demand” that’s being driven largely by novices, not plant experts.
Garden Media Group’s Dubow says this graduation from common to unusual is spilling over into outside plants as well.
“As we head into spring four after the pandemic,” she says, “we have a more experienced gardener who doesn’t just want the basics, but wants rare and unusual plants, outdoor rooms, and unique elements for their yards that show their personality, too.”
- Read about 14 striking houseplants to help beat the “winter blues”
Container gardening and hanging pots
National Gardening Association research found that interest in container gardening grew a whopping 200 percent between 2021 and 2022, and there’s no sign it’s backing off.
The latest twist, Dubow says, is containers that hang. That includes hanging baskets as well as pots mounted on fences and balconies.
Partly fueling that is the trend toward people living in more urban areas and in smaller spaces where land isn’t as available for in-ground gardening.
Garden Media Group’s 2024 Garden Trends Report says the biggest increase in container-gardening spending is coming from those in the 45-54 age group.
Growing fruit at home
COVID-19 spawned a sharp and sudden rebirth in home vegetable gardens. Now many of those newbie food growers are branching out into trying their hand at home-grown fruits, says PHS’s Bunting.
“Growing fruit at home has gained popularity for both those with yard space and only container space,” he says.
Rather than traditional fruits such as apple, pear, and peach trees, though, the current trend is toward less common and especially native fruits such as paw-paws and American persimmons, Bunting says.
He adds that gardeners also are taking advantage of new compact versions of bush fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, and even dwarf figs, that are geared to growing in containers.
Better performing perennials
Besides producing a wave of new compact fruits and landscape shrubs, plant breeders are on the verge of big strides in the performance of several types of perennial flowers.
Seth Reed, marketing manager for Darwin Perennials, says breeders are trialing improved genetics in several species that will solve many of the “frustrating setbacks that gardeners have simply tolerated for the sake of familiarity or ready supply.”
He says improvements will include neater growth habits, longer bloom times, and better flower color in perennials such as salvia, lavender, and catmint.
Small to mid-sized trees
Trees will be on the menu for many yards next year if this year’s demand is any indication, says Christopher Uhland, owner of Chester County’s Harmony Hill Nursery and a board member of the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association.
Uhland says there’s been a “renaissance in demand” this year for small to mid-sized ornamental trees, especially natives such as redbud, American dogwoods, serviceberry, hawthorn, and native magnolias.
“So many homes have existing shade trees and foundation landscaping, but people need or want another tree that doesn’t get too large,” he says. “Adding the native aspect aids in habitat and ecosystem development as well as the aesthetic beauty.”
Penn State’s Collins says gardeners are not only leaning toward mutual aid when it comes to themselves and the environment but also when it comes to themselves and other gardeners.
She’s noticed a new wave of information-sharing – primarily through social media channels and especially in younger gardeners – in which gardeners share tips and encourage one another.
“Master gardeners and other long-time gardeners might think, ‘Well, we’ve always helped each other in the gardening world,’” she says. “But I would argue that gardening might have skipped a generation of Gen Xers, and the new gardeners who started during the height of the pandemic largely began in isolation, learning on their own.”