Gardeners of all ages and age groups have known this forever: Working with plants lowers your blood pressure. That’s a good thing, of course. But few can really “feel” the effects of a blood pressure decrease. We all can, however, feel the relief — the escape — from mental and emotional challenges that gardening gives us. And these days, it seems we need to pay a little more attention to our mental wellness.
Each year, the Garden Media Group identifies trends for the upcoming seasons — those directions that affect both gardeners and the professionals who supply their goods and services. Here’s a hint: For 2018, it’s all about saving our sanity.
The report, titled, “Nature’s Rx for Mental Wellness,” was released in September, and it highlights seven trends taking root across the country. From the types of plants to the style of gardening, they’re connected by their ability to ease the stress of modern life.
Knowing what’s expected will help you to meet the needs of next year’s gardeners.
1. Climate Controlled
According to Dr. David Wolfe, professor of Plant and Soil Ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science (Horticulture Section) at Cornell University, “We are in the unfortunate situation of being the first generation of gardeners, ever, who cannot rely on historical weather records to tell us what our climate is, or what to expect in the future.”
That’s certainly enough to cause a bit of anxiety. But the evidence over the past several years has provided ample reason for gardeners to be concerned about unpredictable climate conditions: record heat, extended drought, Biblical rain events and flooding, rampant wildfires. How, then, do we plan what to plant?
The Garden Media Group identifies four climate-controlled garden types:
- Gone with the wind: Create wind resistant-gardens, including plants with flexible stems and small, narrow leaves that aren’t likely to be subject to windbreak. Think native grasses, evergreen trees, stonecrop.
- Gardens that rock: If dry, hot conditions exist, plant those selections that can tolerate heat, drought and salt. Think date palm, euphorbia, poppies, desert willow.
- Don’t get bogged down: Excessive rain, standing water and saturated soil can suffocate roots. Improve the drainage, if possible. Think water resistant plants such as Joe-Pye weed, ferns and winterberry.
- Ice, ice baby: Frigid climes, ice and frost can break branches and prevent water from reaching roots. Think cold-hardy trees such as Douglas fir, spruce, birch; perennials such as hellebore, sedge and hosta.
Or build a greenhouse.
2. Social Network
Our lives have become so regimented by the social media we’ve connected with, and our “network” of “friends” demands so much of our time, that it’s hard to find a real, natural connection. Well, many savvy plant specialists will tell you that plants can teach us to connect, because plants tend to thrive in their own social networks.
Communities of plants work well together — not just aesthetically, but culturally. Those plants that require similar inputs and use resources equitably will support each other, thus requiring less maintenance. And they tend to be healthier, allowing gardeners to spend more time enjoying the tranquility of a garden rather than struggling to keep it looking good.
The Garden Media Group’s report quotes landscape architect Thomas Rainer: “Garden plants evolved from diverse social networks.” The big shift in horticulture, he says, will be from “thinking about plants as individuals to communities of interrelated species.”
Planting in communities allows the gardener to manage the garden, not the individual plants. Roy Diblik, in his book “Small Perennial Gardens: The Know Maintenance™ Approach,” says that this helps plants to develop supportive relationships, and he calls them “buddy plants.” These are, he says, “hardy, forgiving plants that thrive in diverse garden conditions. They are reliable: They will be there for you — and for each other.”
Using buddy plants, or companions, or creating a social network in the garden — however it’s phrased — is not only good for the plants, it’s good for the gardener.
3. Make a Splash
Water. It’s probably the hottest topic among gardeners, among growers and landscape professionals, among municipalities, among those who live in drought-prone areas as well as those who’ve experienced torrential rains and rising floodwaters. It’s our most precious resource as well as a source of entertainment. The soothing sounds of a backyard water feature, the splash of a fountain — even the calming effects of a still pond or a reflecting pool — can help ease the effects of today’s rat race.
Rainscaping, according to the Garden Media Group, was a hot trend at the North Carolina Green Industry Water Symposium this year. Stormwater remediation through the use of appropriate plants is growing, and demand may continue to increase as municipalities require more efficient use of resources. This is not only responsible; it’s healthy.
Next year’s Philadelphia Flower Show is themed, “Wonders of Water.” According to Sam Lemheney, chief of shows and events for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, “From tree canopies to ground covers, slowing water down, filtering it with plants and creating areas to capture water before it hits the ground is essential to a health water management.”
4. Imperfect Gardening
The Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi” celebrates the perfection of imperfection. Think of the glory of a hydrangea bloom at its fullest, its most pristine, glowing, nearly ethereal white. Beautiful, right? Then think of the same bloom once it starts to deepen, taking on blushes and blotches of pink and red and rust, until it dries and presents a paperlike ghost of its former vitality.
A very wise plantsman once commented about deadheading in the garden: “Don’t. Dead is a color, too.”
A wabi-sabi garden imitates nature by allowing those imperfections that occur despite our best efforts to control. And by letting go, by relaxing the standards of absolute, pristine, not-a-blemish-in-sight perfection, home gardeners can take the pressure off of themselves, relieving stress. That doesn’t mean there’s no maintenance to be done, but gardening should be pleasurable.
What does this mean for plants? Less tightly manicured lawn and more prairie style or sedge-populated areas. More plants that attract pollinators, and allowing those pollinators to feed. Natives and native adapted selections that please both human and wildlife visitors. And maybe even some interesting, repurposed garden art. Sometimes “aged” means well-loved.
5. Breathing Room
The Garden Media Group’s report quotes Georgetown law professor Julie Cohen: “Privacy is a shorthand for breathing room, for time to develop our own unique identity free from ‘likes’ or ‘comments’ on social media.” Smart.
NASA provided the research years ago, and more recently a study from the State University of New York at Oswego has reaffirmed that plants can help to remove common VOCs — volatile organic compounds — found indoors.
Disconnecting from the constant barrage of electronic intrusion is essential to mental health and fitness. Increasing awareness of the effects of indoor air pollution has resulted in 52 percent of people in the U.S. using houseplants to help filter the air in their homes. These two facts have led to the trend of creating “breathing rooms,” indoor spaces where residents can enjoy a bit of respite.
6. Grow Your Own Protein
No, the Garden Media Group is not predicting that gardeners will be raising beef cattle. There are plenty of easy-to-grow foods that contain protein, and given the trend toward reducing meat consumption and increasing plant-based foods, this is an opportunity for the green industry to serve the needs of the new “flexitarian.” According to the group, 23 million Americans identify as flexitarian, which allows them to incorporate meat — but very little of it — into their vegetarian diets. Yearly meat consumption per person, it’s said, has fallen 15 percent since 2006.
Protein rich foods that can be grown at home include edamame, peas, quinoa, broccoli, corn, asparagus, spinach, kale, millet and sunflowers — great for ornamental purposes as well as for their seeds.
Younger gardeners are demanding more of their plants and their gardens. Growing their own protein, as well as their own antioxidants (see below), is one way for them to take charge.
7. Purple Reign
Not only is purple the color of royalty, it’s apparently the new color of health. Purple foods are touted as containing healthy doses of anthocyanins — purple antioxidants. These compounds help to ease the aging process, reduce obesity, help to fight cancer and protect cardiac health. Plus, according to the Garden Media Group’s report, purple food promotes mental health.
Combine these benefits with the increasing desire of gardeners to grow some of their own food — plus the outstanding ornamental characteristics of purple vegetables and berry plants — and purple in the garden is a trend that just may be long-lasting.
Purple foods that can be grown by home gardeners include acai berries, beets, black raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, goji berries, eggplant, plums, purple cabbage, purple carrots (!) and purple sweet potatoes. Many of these selections can be planted with complementary perennials — even with herbs.