Monday, January 16, 2012


Bedding out is a little like modern art; you either love it or hate it and it can be either very good or totally awful! Traditional gardens with shrub borders, herbaceous plantings and prairie borders are safe and acceptable in a muted predictability, a bit like a Gainsborough or Rembrant in the National Gallery. Bedding schemes should be like a visit to Tate Modern; lots of colour, interesting shapes, a new experience and a touch of the extraordinary. 

Exotic foliage used as summer bedding
 Around a century ago that great British garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll commented that 'there is nothing wrong with bedding plants, only the way they are used'. Nothing could be truer today. Garden designers dismiss bedding as totally unfashionable and in doing so, also dismiss a huge palette of wonderful plants.

Heuchera, coleus, Plectranthus and ornamental grasses for summer display

Huge advances have been made in horticultural technology since Jekyll's time. The availability of top quality F1 hybrid cultivars has brought about high performance and predictability in many bedding plants, with wide colour ranges of many popular plants. The development of micropropagation has enabled nurseries to rapidly bulk up plants such as the coloured leaf Cordylines, which cannot be propagated from seed. Meristem culture has allowed plant producers to clean old virus-infected stock of heritage plants such as pelargoniums and reintroduce them as clean stock. 

Two newcomers, Lobelia 'Elmfeuer', Coleus 'Henna' and the old Pelargonium 'Mrs Pollock'
Technology has given us pelleted seeds for species such as petunia, permitting seed sowing machines to handle the tiny seeds. The development of plugs has placed the tricky process of seed germination into the hands of specialists, leaving amateur gardeners and commercial producers to easily complete the process of growing quality plants. Bedding plants are big business in the nursery trade! But whilst the range and quality of bedding plants available has increased dramatically, there has been no matching revolution within the world of garden design

Colocasis 'Black magic' and other modern bedding plants

Yet bedding is often appallingly presented. Here in Palm Springs, the winter bedding is now in place consisting generally of antirhinums, petunias and pansies. Most commonly, these are mixed colours and all three are often mixed as well. The cacophany of colours is muddled and strident to say the least. Iceland poppies are often added which beautiful as they are, just scream at everything else! Sometimes beds are planted in regimented rows and finished with a traditional edging of white alyssum, the scent of which soon becomes cloying. 

Liquorice allsorts bedding Palm Springs style!

Gardeners in the UK are often no better at using bedding plants, with the harshest of colours being mixed together. On occasions this can be blamed on the seed producers. For example mixed pelargoniums, (traditionally known as geraniums) will have a blend of red, white, salmon and pink - a headache inducing mix of colours! To be fair to the seed producers, there are also some good modern designers mixes, where colours have been blended well such as Begonia 'Non Stop Pastel Shades' and Verbena 'Quartz Waterfall Mixed'.

Mixed pelargoniums - no surprise bedding has a bad reputation!

Bedding is not all doom and gloom and some designers and local authorities have started using bedding plants in adventurous ways.The late Christopher Lloyd was somewhat of a maverick and never afraid to experiment or to break the barriers of horticultural prejudice. In his garden at Great Dixter he widely used bedding plants and annuals in his highly successful but sometimes shockingly daring planting mixes. The long border filled with shrubs and herbaceous perennials became ever more complex and successful as he added new and unusual permutations of bulbs and bedding plants to complement the permanent planting.

Dahlias, Arundo donax Variegata & Ipomoea lobata at Great Dixter

Nottingham City Council has been experimenting with bedding for a number of years, mixing traditional bedding plants with fast growing herbaceous perennials, ornamental grasses and architectural plants in a contemporary style. Their success has led to various Britain in Bloom awards including Champion of Champions in 2008. And I just drop in that I happen to chair the design group so can take some pride in these achievements!

Cosmos 'Sonata Pink', Crocosmia 'Solfatare, pampas and Phormium

So you might wonder what stimulated a blog on summer bedding in the middle of winter? Well - simply wounded pride! Despite UK sales of bedding amounting to £500 million and USA sales of $3 billion, there is no published book on designing with bedding plants. (The last was printed in the 1950's.) Yes - you've guessed it - I'm attempting to write one but no publisher seems to be willing to print and again this morning I've had a rejection!

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