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  • Writer's pictureAnne Jennings

Soft Furnishing with Beds and Carpets

‘Ordered blobs arranged in rows by heights and alternative colours so dispiriting that you can stand on the threshold of the garden and feel poorly. Yet in another garden the bedding plants can be collected and grouped to make the most dazzling, high summer clamour of colour by clever blending of blues and purples, crimsons and creams’

A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler

This wonderful ahead-of-its-time book published in 1989 celebrates the random and chaotic elements of a garden. Nevertheless, the author seems on occasion to be momentarily seduced by elements of the formal and contrived – a trait I recognise in myself.

And so I segue from the topic of the last Blog, Shabby – the New Chic? by continuing to consider the contrasting appeal of naturalistic versus organised planting design, and the aesthetic pleasure that can be found in each genre.

Inspired by a quick visit this last weekend to the National Botanic Garden of Ireland in Glasnevin, Dublin I find myself musing about the appeal of traditional carpet bedding - is it to be derided or applauded, tacky or ironically kitsch, villain or hero, friend or foe in terms of environmental sensibility? Much comes down to personal taste but also of course our growing understanding in terms of sustainable practices.

Equally relevant to these considerations is an appreciation of the horticultural skills in which our forebears demonstrated such expertise and high craft. Seasonal bedding is one of many threads that weave through horticultural and garden history, inspiring great movements and fashions of the past. In relation to this subject there is a critical intertwining of plant hunting, glasshouse manufacture and the visionary Victorian ‘parks for the people’ movement from which urban dwellers still benefit today. This Blog focusses mainly on summer bedding with more to be written on successional schemes in which planting is replaced two or three times a year to provide year-round seasonal colour.

Urban parks were created during the industrial revolution to provide green lungs within densely populated and polluted cities. Equally important to the paternalistic endowers who inspired and funded these new parks was the opportunity to provide appropriate social activities for workers where promenading, bandstand music and gentle family activities were encouraged. Importantly these city parks demonstrated the highest standard of horticultural craft and manifested an intense sense of civic pride. The most dramatic symbols of this were the seasonal bedding schemes implemented and cared for with care, skill and artistry.

My arrival at horticultural college in the late 1980s coincided with the then government’s fixation with privatisation and out-sourcing of local authority services, resulting in parks’ teams being reduced or in some cases entirely obliterated. The core student community for my own college up to that point had been day release trainees from local authorities, sent to study as part of horticultural apprentice schemes that helped to maintain public outdoor spaces to the highest standard. This government-induced change drew a line from which we can track a marked deterioration in the care and management of many of our parks with only a small percentage maintaining previous standards through the development of creative financial and management initiatives.

Horticultural trainees would, as part of those previous employment opportunities learn how to design, implement and care for bedding schemes, considered a core component of their skills development. I clearly remember crawling along wooden boards to plant up the raised, circular floral welcome bed at the college entrance.

An enhanced version of this could be seen in many parks throughout the country in the form of floral clocks, with planting more accurately described as carpet bedding due to the dense, ground hugging character of the plant palette. Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh maintains a fine example, that takes 5 weeks to plant and is maintained daily by a dedicated gardener through the summer months.

An innovative new system has been developed by Kernock Park Plants which designs and grows carpet bedding schemes on a tray-based system InstaPlant®, reducing installation time and allowing complex patterns to be created on the ground.

This system is used at Waddesdon Manor, including as part of the Art in the Garden programme launched in 2000 with Oscar de la Renta’s carpet bed design shown above.

Image credit: Kernock Park Plants)

It is easy to mock such traditional displays of static colour that were so loved by previous generations, and it can certainly be argued that such installations are not sustainable in terms of the resources required to finance, grow, plant and maintain the installations. But a bedding display is perhaps the most tangible demonstration of the skill and respect that was once applied to the craft of horticulture and should at the very least be celebrated in theory, if not replicated in practice.

Whilst there is a balance to be found in terms of contemporary trends and sustainable practice, the less quantifiable elements of summer bedding displays should not be ignored. There is huge public appreciation of the colour, fragrance and impact they contribute within parks, where people gather to admire and enjoy the planting, smiles and wonder on their faces. Humans are joined by massive insect populations and bird activity with the plants providing valuable nectar and food sources. At the end of the summer season, tender bedding plants will be composted and ‘dot plant’ exotics stored in frost-free environments until the following year whilst bulbs will be left in place or replanted year after year, so all is not lost at each season’s turn.

Fine examples of seasonal, successional and carpet bedding can be seen London’s Royal Parks as well as many seaside resorts, with Bournemouth Parks Department being one of the most lauded and where many Green Flags have been awarded. The plants are grown in the Council’s own Kings Park Nursery which sells excess stock to the public to support the cost of the displays. Such council-run glass house facilities were always an intrinsic element of public planting schemes though many have sadly been lost and where seasonal plants are used, they are often bought from commercial suppliers.

Gardening is a broad and varied artform appealing in different ways to different people and preferences. As with any creative display, planting is open to subjective opinion, with some loving and others hating certain styles or colours (I for one have never been a lover of salmon-pink anything!). Seasonal planting provides the most flexible opportunity to combine colour, texture and form and if it doesn’t work one year you can try something different the next.

For those who feel a more sustainable solution is needed for colourful displays, there are options. Shapes within a bed can be delineated with low growing hummock grasses such as forms of Festuca, Carex or Ophiopogon, all of which can remain permanently in the ground season-to-season, and low hedges from colourful forms such as Euonymus or Berberis could be used in the same way.

Taller feature plants or ‘dot plants’ can also remain in place and depending on where you are located, milder winters mean structural plants such as Trachycarpus, Dicksonia, Fuchsia, Olive and Oleander can often survive through winter even if they need a pashmina of plant fleece in the coldest weather.

With such permanent planting in place, spaces between can be filled with traditional bedding plants or for those who prefer more sustainable and economical solutions, a selection of permanent carpets can be planted, for example thyme, thrift, violets and low growing geraniums such as G. macrorrhizum - as well as my oft-mentioned, invaluable Mexican fleabane, Erigeron karvinskianus. The endless rainbow possibilities of Heucheras in myriad forms would also provide interesting material with which to work.

To end, here are some of my favourite summer bedding combinations:

Deep wine, purple, and magenta with a lime green lift:

Calibrachoa 'Double Can-Can Wine Red'

Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’

Pelargonium ‘Lord Bute’

Petunia ‘Shock Wave Deep Purple’

Verbena 'Quartz Purple'

Begonia rex ‘Jive’

Helichrysum petiolare ‘Gold’

Sophisticated white and green:

Antirrhinum ‘Royal Bride’

Bacopa 'Snowtopia'

Calibrachoa 'Million Bells Ice'

Diascia ‘Divaria White’

Euphorbia hypericifolia 'Diamond Frost'

Lobelia Trailing White

Petunia ‘East Wave White’

Hedera helix ‘Glacier’

Helichrysum petiolare ‘Variegatum’

Pastel shades:

Brachycombe multifida

Lobelia ‘Cascade Mix’

Salvia farinacea 'Strata'

Petunia ‘Tidal Wave Silver’

Phlox drummondii 'Crème Brûlée'

Verbena Endurascape White Blush

Cineraria ‘Silver Dust’

Helichrysum petiolare - silver

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