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The pandemic gardening boom brought to light something that green-thumbers have known for generations: Nurturing plants is good for our mental health.
“For me, gardening is restorative,” says Jordan Mara, the Squamish, B.C., founder of Mind + Soil, a popular YouTube channel that focuses on bringing the mental-health benefits of gardening to people around the world. “It helps me recharge my batteries. It keeps me focused on the present. It keeps me grounded, and I find it endlessly fascinating.”
Research shows that feelings of anxiety lessen when we are digging, weeding, planting seeds and staying connected to nature. A recent study by the University of Colorado funded by the American Cancer Society, for example, found that community gardening is a valuable resource that helps lower stress – and even reduces cancer risks.
That, alone, should make us all consider picking up shovels and getting our hands dirty. But new evidence also suggests gardens tend to make us more altruistic. People are planting to support pollinators, fight climate change and make the world a more tranquil place.
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Here are five gardening trends for 2023 – ground covers, allergy-friendly gardens, maximalism, vertical gardening and planting with a purpose – that the experts say carry on the tradition of making ourselves (and the planet) healthier and happier.
Ground covers finally get some respect
B.C. gardener Gary Lewis, owner of Phoenix Perennials in Richmond, had a clear goal in mind with his new book: make ground covers sexy again.
He spent almost a decade compiling an encyclopedic list of 4,000 plants – everything from fast spreaders to more sedate crawlers, in every colour, texture and shape imaginable. The result is The Complete Book of Ground Covers, in which he makes the case that it is high time these small but mighty plants got some long-overdue respect. Typically low-growing, they are perfect for controlling erosion, require little to no maintenance and bring that extra layer of dynamism to gardens, plus containers, hanging baskets, living walls and green roofs.
“I feel like ground covers are the perfect plant for the moment we live in,” Lewis says. “They can be used as a sustainable alternative to lawns. They can lower the carbon footprint in a garden because they use less water, fertilizer and pesticides. They create a diverse landscape for native insects, birds and other wildlife.”
As a finishing touch, ground covers unify a garden, knitting plants together, and provide a bridge between hardscapes (patios and walkways) and gardens. A plant such as golden creeping Jenny, for instance, is perfect for providing a burst of bright green and gold along a dark, shady path. Creeping thyme can be used to frame a garden sculpture, while Mexican feather grass fits nicely in tight spaces (it’s used between pavers at the High Line in New York).
Another of Lewis’s favourites is the Himalayan maidenhair fern, beautifully textured, with fronds that come up a glowing copper in the spring. “No matter what kinds of conditions you face – shade, dry soil, heavy clay or excess moisture – there’s a ground cover that will thrive and beautify your garden.”
For most of us, spring is an eagerly awaited time of renewal. But for the one-quarter of Canadians who suffer from seasonal allergies, it’s also the season of sniffles, sneezes and itchy eyes. And in recent years, allergy sufferers say their symptoms seem to be getting worse, a phenomenon partly explained by climate change: Studies have found that warming temperatures are playing havoc with the growing season in North America, causing longer and more intense pollen seasons.
Many of us assume there is little we can do to alleviate symptoms except pop antihistamines. However, gardener Frankie Ferragine – also known as Frankie Flowers to fans of Breakfast Television on Citytv – says the kinds of plants we choose, and the time of day we garden, can also provide relief during allergy seasons, which typically run this course: tree pollen in the spring, grass in the summer and ragweed in the fall.
The key to mitigating allergy suffering is to choose low-pollen producers, which for flowering plants include begonias, clematis, geraniums, petunias and snapdragons, says Ferragine, owner of two nurseries in Bradford, Ont. In the shrub and tree category, he recommends azaleas, hostas, boxwood, dogwood, hydrangea, magnolia and viburnum. The biggies to avoid are ragweed, goldenrod, beech, birch, cedar, pine and alder.
Another good tip: Stay indoors when the wind is strong, and garden later in the day (pollen counts are typically highest in the morning).
“Of course, there is no true allergy-free garden,” Ferragine says. “Pollen is everywhere.”
Maximalism or statement gardening
The ethos here is simple: Forget “less is more” and embrace “more is more.” Maximalism is all about creating landscapes that are energizing, fun and vibrant – and that showcase their owners’ personal style and personality.
It is a fancy term for a trend that advocates for the artful layering of plants to produce depth, texture and pop, says England-based gardening author Anna Pavord, whose new book is The Seasonal Gardener: Creative Planting Combinations. A maximalist style does not mean throwing plants together haphazardly; it still adheres to the basic garden design principles of form, texture, proportion and scale.
Pavord says the trend has come about, in part, by a change in the way we look at our gardens. “We are now much more aware than we used to be of the masses of creatures that need and use our gardens. Many of us now garden in a looser, less controlling way than we used to. … The goal is to have lots of stuff burgeoning around us to maximize colour – not just through flowers but also through foliage – so there is generous display through all seasons.”
Layering can be done in a small or large space. In her book, Pavord identifies 60 “star” plants – showstoppers based on different criteria – and pairs each with a supporting cast of two plants that provide the best kind of companionship. For instance, she might combine Iris sibirica ‘Flight of Butterflies’ with Casa Blanca lily and selinum wallichianum, a hardy perennial with bright-green foliage and lacy white flowers.
“Sometimes the supporting plants will perform at the same time as the star to deliver a grand-slam seasonal show. Other times, the supporters will fill in the gaps when the star is resting,” Pavord says.
Vertical gardening for small spaces
One of the hottest new trends, vertical gardening is also one of the oldest planting techniques: If you’ve ever grown a vine on a fence or a trellis, it’s basically the same thing. However, the term has come to mean new things, as people embrace vertical gardening as a way to grow herbs, fruits, veggies and flowers in places – including balconies and even window sills – that might once have been deemed too small to support an abundance of plant life.
Gardener Kristen Raney became enamoured with vertical gardening in 2016, when she and her family lived in a small house on a small lot in Saskatoon. “We had a really tiny yard and I needed to pack as much as I could in there as possible. My gardening dreams were way bigger than my actual space.”
She started with a basic A-frame trellis. “The simplest way to vertical garden is to start with a vining plant, so I started with cucumbers, which I think are easiest,” says Raney, a mother of four who has her own YouTube channel, Shifting Roots, with 16,000 subscribers.
That experiment worked so well she started growing pumpkins along a makeshift trellis in a small raised container bed. Soon she moved on to peas, beans, tomatoes and cucamelons, letting the plants attached themselves to string and/or chicken wire she had strung up along the side of the house.
While such gardens may be small, they still require work, she advises. “Keep in mind that a vertical garden requires the same nutrients, frequent watering and sunlight exposure as a horizontally raised garden bed. Try not to pack too many plants into the space or you will get powdery mildew and other disease. It’s always good to be aware of airflow, especially in a city yard.”
Raney now lives on a small acreage outside Saskatoon, but she still incorporates verticals into her overall garden design because she loves the “height and visual interest” they bring to her outdoor living space.
“The real advantage to vertical gardening is the space-saving and the beauty,” Raney says. “Even the smallest balcony, with good light, can feel like an oasis with plants up the walls.”
Planting with purpose
“Purpose,” when it comes to plants, means different things to different people. To some, it may mean putting in native species (coneflower, sunflowers, phylox or asters) that not only bring a pop of colour but also support crucial pollinators such as birds, bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds.
To others, it’s getting rid of a water-guzzling lawn and turning it into an eco-friendly oasis filled with raised vegetable gardens, drought-tolerant plants (lavender, catmint or Russian sage), and stone walkways lined with herbs and lettuces to act as border plants instead of annuals. Still, others are converting water-logged eyesores in the corner of their yard into beautiful rain gardens filled with plants that don’t mind getting their feet wet, such as marsh marigolds, great blue lobelia and inkberry holly.
Whatever the motivation, this type of planting has a loftier goal in mind than simply making a yard look pretty. Gardeners increasingly want to design gardens with smaller carbon footprints so that they, and the planet, can breathe a little easier, says Sean James, a master gardener and sustainable landscaper who lives in Milton, Ont.
Regenerative gardening, for example, is conscious of emissions and waste, and advocates a go-slow approach that nourishes the soil naturally rather than using chemical-laded fertilizers and pesticides that damage plants and the soil’s microscopic life.
“Climate change is sending us some pretty strong messages,” James says. “Storms are getting stronger and summer’s are getting hotter. Gardeners are finely attuned to these changes, and many are doing what they can to help out.”