See the new trends report: 2024 Trends in Garden Design

Did you hear that? It’s the collective sigh of garden designers everywhere. Natives and drought tolerant plants, container plantings, and edible gardens are at last no longer a trend, but are here to stay. In their wakes is a mountain of new ideas ready to be reflected in the garden in myriad ways. Here is a collection of trending ideas we’re seeing for 2016.

Coloring structures

Susan Cohan of Susan Cohan Gardens in New Jersey says people will want more color out of their structures which can be achieved by painting fences, arbors, and houses. “Rather than white, brown or gray fences, we’ll see fences painted dark green or dark blue. This is a trend coming out of Europe,” she says. “Black houses and fences are huge in Europe. Here in the U.S., people are painting their houses a darker color, like deep blues or navy blue as a foil for the garden. A house painted dark charcoal gray affects what a garden looks like,” she says. (Learn more about this trend: Creating a Dramatic Backdrop.)

Coloring structures in the garden, a trend Susan Cohan says hails from Europe, create a vibrant background for setting off plants in the garden. Photo by: Susan Cohan, APLD.

Appreciating subtlety in gardens

Gardens don’t have to be over the top,” says Jan Johnsen, a New York landscape designer, author and speaker. “There will be more appreciation for subtle color ranges, or all white, or one color gardens.” Johnsen says gardens will be appreciated in the details of a stone wall, or interesting edging, or delicate branching patterns in the landscape.

“People get swept away by spring color or summer flower displays,” says Johnsen, “but they’re starting to get more in tune to early to mid-fall gardens as well.” Rusty colors of oak leaf hydrangeas in the fall, grasses that flower late season, and the intricate patterns of branching on bare plants and shrubs will be more appreciated, she says.

Designing with houseplants and growing veggies indoors

“Whether it’s a terrarium, a living wall or an indoor planter, people are becoming more interested in treating a plant pot as a small-scale landscape,” says Helen Battersby of Gardenfix in Toronto. “Instead of just having a single houseplant in a pot, they’re applying 'thriller, spiller, filler' container gardening techniques and other design principles to indoor gardens.” Battersby says there have been some great books in the last few years that play on this trend. From Tovah Martin’s The Unexpected Houseplant (Timber Press, 2012) to Rooted in Design (Ten Speed Press, 2015) by Sprout Home. According to Battersby, “You can enjoy your design all winter indoors or even shift it to the patio for an instant garden in summer.”

Vegetable gardening indoors is becoming more popular with compact and increasingly ornamental cultivars such as the tiny, heart-shaped cherry tomato called ‘Sweet Valentine’. Photo by: Helen Battersby.

Battersby also notices new manifestations in vegetable gardening indoors in small spaces. “People harvesting microgreens from their windowsill in winter is an extreme example, from baby basil to pea shoots to radish tops. It’s like beansprouts taken to the next degree,” she says. Plant breeders creating veggie cultivars that are both compact and increasingly ornamental is another facet of it. “Such as veggies that do double duty in a small footprint like the tiny, heart-shaped cherry tomato called ‘Sweet Valentine’ being developed by Hem Genetics which looks pretty on a tabletop or in a windowbox,” says Battersby. “Or a frilly dark basil that makes a decorative foliage plant in mixed containers, or another that has showy flowers you don’t have to snip off,” she says.

Containers are trending toward creative manifestations using herbs and veggies treated as foliage. Photo by: Helen Battersby.

“I think both trends are related to demographic shifts — whether younger people who can’t afford to buy that first home so need to garden indoors or older people downsizing to condos and terrace gardens or people just having less space and time,” says Battersby. (Learn more about gardening in small spaces.)

Natives don’t equal overgrown & messy landscapes

“There is greater understanding that the use of natives in the landscape doesn’t equal an overgrown, messy “weed patch” for a front yard,” says Anna Brooks of Arcadia Gardens, LLC in Southwestern Michigan. “A well thought out design using native species (and cultivars) of regional trees, shrubs and perennials for their form, foliage, flower and wildlife attracting qualities can be indistinguishable from a similar design using traditional ornamental plant selection. No longer limited to prairie style themes, a heavily native species populated planting design can range from contemporary, to modern farmhouse, to classic traditional and everything in between,” she says.

Rethinking outdoor experiences

“Everything you have inside, you can have outside,” says Lisa Port of Banyon Tree Design Studio in Seattle. From grills, covered areas, areas with heat, lighting, Port’s clients continue to extend the season with outdoor living spaces. “The fire pit trend is getting more extensive,” she says. “My clients want a fire pit area for teenagers, for example, so they can keep an eye on them but give them their own space.”

The use of composites and hardwoods will offer more flexible design options, such as this horizontal fence screen whose width, gap, material and frames are customizable for individualizing outdoor spaces. Photo by: Cheri Stringer APLD, Owner TLC Gardens.

“There’s an increasing trend in fire pits of all kinds,” says Cheri Stringer APLD, owner TLC Gardens in Boulder County, Colo. “People are thinking of them differently, more as accents in the landscape. For example, they want a fire area separate from the cooking area. They’re becoming transitional fire pits with customization like round, rectangular, and portable designs. Stringer also notices this customization trend in landscape materials. “More composites and hardwoods like Batu and ipe, for instance, are being integrated into the landscape as inlaid decks against natural gray concrete, or as horizontal panel fences being used as a screen. I also see people wanting to use more iron in their gardens,” she says.

The outdoor experience is shifting from simple dining areas to ‘chat groups’ with areas designed solely for relaxing and conversation. Design Susan Cohan, APLD. Photo by: Susan Cohan, APLD.

Susan Cohan also sees clients thinking differently about outdoor furniture. “It’s not just a dining table on the patio anymore,” she says. “We’ve reached a tipping point in garden design where furniture and fabric and outdoor accessories are as plentiful and available as they are for interiors. There’s a huge movement toward individualizing outdoor spaces. You can be very specific with fabric and accessories. There’s no longer just one line of wicker furniture to choose from,” she says. Cohan also notices a desire for ‘chat group’ furniture—deep seating with cushions around a fireplace, for example. “These are conversation furniture areas, places to relax not just for dining. People think about dining outside but not the rest of outdoor relaxing. I think we’ll see a shift in thinking about outdoor space,” she says.

Manageable maintenance

“Some trends we need to help people maintain,” says Darcy Daniels of eGardenGo and designer with Bloomtown Gardens in Portland. “For example, natural gardens or gardens with a relaxed style can be tricky to maintain and still meet our aesthetic desires. People want beautiful and eco-sensitive outdoor spaces but they’re desperate for it to be manageable over the long haul.” Daniels finds the following design principles will be key to manageable maintenance: thoughtful plant selection; choosing a planting scheme that matches how people want to live in their garden; and selecting a manageable plant palette, characterized by a fewer number of plants, each plant well-chosen and doing its ‘job’, i.e. easy-care blooms, multi-season appeal, etc. “We can achieve this naturalistic, relaxed, and looser planting style tempered with carefully selected plants,” she says, “so they’ll get the natural, casual garden that they desire and still land at a comfortable spot on the maintenance continuum.”

Sustainable features integrated with design

“Generally, sustainable landscapes are designed around function,” says Port, “so inherently they are ‘highly functioning’, but they don’t always integrate or mesh with their surroundings. As we take a closer look at soils, plant materials, rain gardens and bioswales, I think we’ll see a move toward landscapes that are sustainable but also very aesthetically pleasing. Instead of kidney bean-shaped rain gardens plunked in the front yard grass-scape, we’ll see highly functioning landscapes responding to the topography and architecture with appropriate plant choices that appeal and are relative to the scale of the garden. I see it done well with municipalities, cities, and homeowner associations,” she says. “I think we’ll see more examples of this well done in residential settings.”

Sustainable residential gardens with aesthetically-pleasing stormwater management solutions are on the radar in 2016. This soft scape rain garden with recycled concrete pavers has downspouts from an upper roof, and a rain chain down into bio-retention cells with the (contained) equisetum grass. Photo by: Banyon Tree Design Studio, Lisa Port APLD.

“Rain water is becoming more and more important and keeping it on site is an emerging trend,” says Cohan. “Where it is allowed, rain water harvesting is being incorporated as rain water features and as an auxiliary water source.”

Gardens in 2016 will include new designs for harvesting rainwater, such as this catchment pond that functions both as a water feature and auxiliary water source. Design by Tom Mannion. Photo by: Roger Foley.

More plant-centric design and purpose

“For the past many years, homeowners have tended to center their landscapes around hardscapes rather than plantings,” says Julie Messervy of Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio in Saxtons River, Vt. “With so much interest in natives and edibles and with all the new varieties available in nurseries and home centers, plants are returning to their rightful importance in our backyard landscapes. After all, they are relatively inexpensive and easily moved and changed, and they bring beauty and softness to terraces and patios,” she says.

Pam Penick, author of Lawn Gone! and The Water-Saving Garden, who observes gardening trends in Austin, Texas, says, “I think we’ll see more gardening with a purpose. The younger generation especially is interested in making a homesteader's garden rather than a purely ornamental garden. Interest will continue to grow in plants that attract pollinators, growing food, keeping chickens, beekeeping, vegetable beds, clothes-drying racks, and composting,” she says.

Lighting schemes

“The technology with LED lights has really changed,” says Port. “Though it’s a bigger up front cost, there are long term energy savings, and the quality is getting better and better. LEDs are warmer colored and available in all kinds of systems. The controller for lighting schemes can be done on a smart phone controlling dimming, brightness, on/off controls,” she says. One popular trend Port has noticed is party lighting. “It’s possible to use different schemes such as colored lights for a holiday theme or favorite sports team colors to light up the landscape for a big game night. What’s really interesting is to set lighting schemes using softer tones to highlight different plant materials, such as deepening the color of a cedar with blue/green colored lights.”

New technologies offer cafe lighting with old style cafe string lights in both modern and informal designs integrated with the overall outdoor lighting scheme. Photo by: Cheri Stringer APLD, Owner TLC Gardens.

“Cafe lighting with old style cafe string lights is popular in both modern and informal designs integrated with the outdoor lighting,” says Stringer. “Clients want control on their iPhone, iPad, along with irrigation controls on the iPad.”

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