March 17 2021 11:32 AM

Learn which major design trends your clients will be asking for this season.

Last year was anything but a typical season for most landscape designers and contractors. For some, they weren’t certain they would have a season at all. But as homeowners spent more time inside in the early part of the past year, many decided to revamp backyards and outdoor living spaces.

In some cases, clients have been looking for the same extended living areas as they have for the past few years. But some new trends such as fruit-bearing plants and landscape lighting have started to emerge as homeowners really began to engage with the backyard as a way to get out of the house.

Here are a few of the big trends that could carry over into the new season.

Extend your space

Many clients have been requesting outdoor spaces that look and feel more like the indoors, says Kevin Willcox, owner of WIL Design/Consulting, San Antonio. For some recent projects, he’s worked with outdoor bar areas covered by sail shades or sitting areas with a television. In the past year, his designs leaned much more toward hardscaping and outdoor living spaces than directly dealing with planted landscaping.

“People are requesting things like outdoor kitchens and even outdoor showers to have around their pools,” says Willcox. “One shower I put in was as big as the one in my bathroom.”

Pergolas are also growing in popularity as a way to add some architecture to an outdoor living space while also building in more greenery, he says. The designs incorporate walls that cordon off different parts of the backyard and build in elements such as fireplaces.

As homeowners spent more time at home because of the quarantine, they wanted to make use of the outdoor space where it felt safer to relax and see friends even at a distance, says Ivan Katz, visionary at Great Lakes Landscape Design, Oak Park, Michigan.

Clients are looking for design elements to be a larger format than before.

Beyond just a general push for larger outdoor living spaces, Katz has seen more clients coming in with a detailed idea of what the space should look like. Part of that is because clients have had more time to think through design decisions, which translates into better communication with them overall.

“People are definitely coming to the table prepared,” he says. “Because we have that, we’re able to suggest a lot more, and people understand the ideas even if they don’t do it all at once.”

Regardless of how far that timeline stretches, it’s critical to begin with a full master plan, he says. Ask how the clients use their house and how they anticipate using the outdoor space. What considerations need to be made for children, and what parts of the plan are a priority? It’s also crucial for clients to understand the overall budget before making any forward progress.

Keep it simple The biggest thing that clients are requesting is that outdoor spaces be low-maintenance, says Morgan Leverington, garden center manager, Wagner Nursery Inc., Asbury, Iowa. While that’s often top of the list for many clients, it was an especially common request in the past 12 months.

“The less they’ll have to do once it’s all together, the happier they’ll be,” she says.

That means landscapes with plants that require little to no trimming or continuous care to provide a backdrop for the living space. One style of plant that Leverington has been using more of to satisfy those customers is dwarf varieties.

“We’ve been using dwarf varieties of some of the bigger plants that everyone typically likes,” she says. “That way they don’t have to be out there trimming constantly, but they still have a permanent landscape fixture that looks nice and clean.”

In terms of design, using dwarf varieties opens up opportunities to have healthy, growing plants right next to the house for clients to enjoy. Often, it means including more beds in the design because they don’t fill up as much visual space. Using a larger anchor plant in the design can provide a good balance.

Smart water use ties into the idea of reducing overall maintenance requirements in outdoor living spaces, says Willcox. Especially in south Texas, the materials and plants need to be specifically chosen to survive the harsh drought environment. While many of his clients are getting away from using decorative grasses, he incorporates desert plants that will handle the weather effectively.

Pick the right plants

Native plants have also been more popular with clients for the past year, says Leverington. They’re a major focus because they tend to handle the regional weather better but also because they tend to be more hardy when dealing with the local soil types and plant diseases.

“It’s especially good for our clients, because they’re not constantly having to replace plants,” she says.

When using native plants, clients are often worried that the finished design won’t be as visually interesting as one using more exotic choices.

But native plants can provide just as much of a visual impact, says Willcox.

“There’s always going to be something interesting,” he says. Species like salvias and lantanas in his region can provide golds, purples and reds blooming at different times of the year. “You can get some really good color. It’s really more about being able to know which plants are going to give you that.”

Leverington relies on information from the local Department of Natural Resources as a starting point for finding native varieties. Her suppliers will also often have suggestions for native choices for the region.

Another current popular feature in outdoor living spaces partially driven by the quarantine is incorporating fruit gardens in the design, says Leverington.

“So many more people wanted to have fruit trees,” she says. “This is the first year that I think we really sold out of all of our fruit trees in the season.”

Leverington saw multiple designs using apple, pear, peach, plum or cherry trees, but berry-producing bushes were also a big hit and are supportive of local pollinators. While those add an interactive element to the landscape, those types of plants can cause some headaches in design, especially in areas with heavy wildlife traffic.

When designing around a fruit- or berryproducing plant, it can be useful to try to place it near the house to discourage animals from foraging. Tree guards can be used in some situations, and repellants can be effective, she says. Some smaller plants can also be deterrents to animals like deer.

Light it up

One outdoor living feature that Willcox has seen a big increase in over the past year is landscape lighting, as clients want to be able to use that outdoor area late into the evening.

“People will spend a lot of money on it,” he says. “They want to be able to enjoy the landscaping as much at night as during the day. You get a totally different look at night.”

Accent lighting has been an integral part of many of Willcox’s recent designs, which makes the outdoor space more accessible and improves security. He uses it to highlight a key plant or landscaping element like a sculpture.

Willcox uses an overlay when he’s working on landscape lighting designs to give his clients a sense of what the finished result will look like. He’ll also occasionally take a light kit out to the client’s property for a demonstration, but that’s much more rare.

Beyond landscape lighting, Katz is seeing more landscape designs that incorporate a heater or fire element to not only extend the time that an outdoor living space can be used at night, but the number of nights total throughout the year.

“There’s so many options, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” he says.

Block it out Outdoor living space designs in the past year have included much more hardscaping than typical, says Leverington.

“We’ve done more retaining wall work and patio work than I think we’ve ever had to do,” she says.

It’s not just that hardscapes are becoming more popular. More decorative stone choices have been on the rise as compared to more standard plain pebble finish concrete, says Willcox.

That lines up with what Leverington has seen, as clients have shifted away from more natural, freeform designs.

“We used to have a lot more abstract, natural looks to them,” she says. “But now people want more of that nice, clean, linear look. As we go into 2021, we’re trying to order things that will maybe have more of those cleaner looks, with blues, blacks and whites.”

One choice Willcox has seen used more often is cinderblock with stucco, incorporating stone on the edges. When he’s working with a client to determine the right hardscaping material, he starts by trying to get a bead on the client’s taste.

“I spend a lot of time with them, figuring out exactly what they want so we don’t have to go through the design process 100 times,” Willcox says.

A useful starting place is to look at the materials the house itself is made from, he says. Often, clients will want the hardscaped area to look as if it’s flowing seamlessly from the established structure, as an extension of the original building.

“In years past, if you did a swimming pool in the backyard, you maybe had a sidewalk to it,” Willcox says. “Now it’s not just a pool stuck out in the middle of the backyard. It’s all incorporated in what you’ve got going around it, with a fire pit and things of that nature.”

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at

A tough order

One of the biggest struggles of the past season for Morgan Leverington, garden center manager, Wagner Nursery Inc., Asbury, Iowa, has been sourcing larger plants and trees consistently. Often, clients looking for new services requested bigger trees and shrubs immediately, but the market couldn’t support it.

“In years past, we were able to fulfill those requests,” she says. “But a lot of these growers, they cannot keep up with the demand. In the next few years, we’re going to see very small plants being delivered to the nursery, because it takes so long for a tree or shrub to get to a good, substantial size.”

That could continue into future seasons if demand doesn’t slow down this year, she says. While Kevin Willcox, owner of WIL Design/Consulting, San Antonio, doesn’t do most of the direct installs on his designs, he works with contractors throughout the process. He’s heard more than once that sourcing particular plants has gotten much more difficult in the past year. In some cases, contractors have had to expand their networks of grower contacts to find either the right plant or one that will work for the install.

“If it gets to the point where it’s too hard to find it, I just don’t use it anymore,” he says. In most cases, though clients were frustrated, Leverington has just been up front about the difficulty facing the market currently.

“Things take time,” she says. “It’s not like we can just produce a plant from a factory. It takes a good six or seven years in the ground before it’s even able to be dug up and used in the landscape.”

That demand stress isn’t limited to just plants, either. Lead times for hardscaping products have gone further out than typical, says Ivan Katz, visionary at Great Lakes Landscape Design, Oak Park, Michigan. That calls for careful planning of which products to use within a design and ordering the product as early as possible once the design is nailed down. To keep the conversation moving, he often suggests products to the client in order to get to the decisions made quickly.