If there’s one oasis of sanity to be found in unsettled times, it’s in the garden. Whether it’s a tiny backyard, acres of vegetables or in pots on a patio, the place where you can prune and putter, get your hands dirty and turn your face up to the sun can be a sanctuary, as well as a source of fresh flowers and food, a place for children to play or birds to bathe and feed. In the new year many of us will spend more time than ever before in our favorite spot, and garden designers, nursery suppliers and seedsmen are all thinking hard about what consumers will want in the coming year. 

 One common feature of gardens all over the world is the desire to have them look natural. Materials like rush or willow for furniture and  rough-cut stones for paths continue to be popular choices, as are native plants. Lawns are out, in large areas of the country because of drought and water shortages, or  because they require fuel to mow and take up space that could be used for edible plantings. 

Sustainability and ease of care are the buzzwords around nursery centers. Hundreds of new dwarf shrubs that require little maintenance are being patented to complement the trend toward smaller houses. Dwarf varieties of shrubs make sense in so many ways: why plant a variety that you will then spend every spring or autumn pruning and shaping so it doesn’t take over the perennial border or front yard?

While vegetable gardens, chickens and ducks and bee hives remain high on the list of wants for many garden enthusiasts, whether urban, suburban or rural,  another trend is for dye gardens ­— plants that can be used to make natural dyes for coloring clothing, textiles, and yarns. Some of the popular dye plants — coreopsis, cosmos, Japanese indigo, marigold, ‘Moonshine’ yarrow, blue cornflower, and purple basil, to name a few — are kitchen and cutting garden favorites too, so it’s  not difficult to integrate a natural dye garden into an edible garden. Any seed or plant that has “tinctorea” in its botanical name is one that is a potential source of natural dye.

Each year in April in California, leading plant breeders, growers, and suppliers showcase their plant varieties and new products for the coming year.  The needs of small-space gardening were part of the scene. As the number of people looking to grow their own food increases, commercial growers are trying solve the problem of limited spaces by developing combinations that can be grown together in one container. For example, visiting garden writers were shown combinations of tomatoes being grown together, such as cherry tomatoes being planted with larger varieties, which would give the patio gardener a slicing tomato as well as a small-fruited type. Mixes of lettuces and herbs were being grown together, as well as colorful combinations like eggplant, basil and petunias in one pot. In individual hanging baskets cucumbers, herbs and lettuce were being grown together.  

Also on display were different combinations that breeders were testing to see which plants grow together well in terms of bloom time and how bloom times can be extended. Some of the more interesting mixes of plants you’ll be able to find in the coming year are ornamental grass and flowers like marigold and petunias to be planted in with herbs and vegetables.

Some breeders are seeking to improve old favorites. Burpee’s  new pea, “Pea Masterpiece,” is totally edible, from tendril to pea to pod. A new variety of cabbage, called “Heavy Metal,” is a unique and colorful take on Chinese cabbage. The cabbage becomes a vibrant red in color in cooler temperatures, so the crop becomes even more beautiful as the season progresses. The tiny “Bambino” purple basil is a miniaturized version that would work as well in a container as it would in the herb garden.  Renee’s Garden offers bush bean “Castandel,” whose beans keep their juicy texture and flavor longer on the plants, leaving more time to pick them before they become tough or fibrous. They’re suitable for garden beds, patio containers or small-space gardens and are a great boon for those who can only get out there and pick on the weekend. 

It feels good to know that plant breeders and professionals are responding to the needs of home and small-space gardeners. There will always be those who look for heirloom plants and varieties — the bigger and blowzier, the better — and for them there are plant swaps or specialty catalogs and nurseries. But in my heart I believe that there is no harm in making gardening attractive and easy for those of us who are growing older or just starting out, with only tiny spaces for planting. If there is one wish I’d make for the new year it’s for everyone everywhere to have some small green spot to call their own.