Ursula Buchan

Bedding pleasures

Depending on whether you are a housewife, Lothario or a gardener, ‘bedding’ can mean a number of different things.

Bedding pleasures
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Depending on whether you are a housewife, Lothario or a gardener, ‘bedding’ can mean a number of different things.

Depending on whether you are a housewife, Lothario or a gardener, ‘bedding’ can mean a number of different things. As a horticultural term, it dates from the early decades of the 19th century, when adventurous Victorian head gardeners, especially those working on large private estates, began to use large numbers of low-growing tender plants to create a colourful, exuberant display on terraces and parterres.

These tender perennials and annuals (mainly from the frost-free regions of South America and South Africa) — calceolarias, pelargoniums, lobelias, salvias, petunias, African marigolds and the like — were grown from seed in heated glasshouses and ‘bedded out’ in late May or early June. They did not survive the frosts in October, so the custom grew up of replacing them then with hardy biennial flowers and bulbs for display in spring. Costly in time and labour, this practice was a persuasive means of emphasising the wealth of a landowner.

The custom soon trickled down to private gardens, where ‘a nice splash of colour’ appealed to those who favoured the ‘gardenesque’ style. Public authorities saw the point as well, and bedding-out has remained, in simplified form, a feature of parks and public spaces to this day. The effects are consciously crowd-pleasing, and designed, as they were in private gardens, to be viewed from a distance.

The habit of ‘bedding out’ has endured remarkably well. Those who do not care to use half-hardies to create blocks of distinct colours nevertheless often employ them to fill those gaps which appear in borders from time to time, and to enhance the effect of hardy perennials in the summer garden. For myself, I grow a number from seed each year (a rather old-fashioned and expensive way of doing it but it gives me the choice I would not find otherwise) in order to ginger up my summer plantings. Favourites include Nicotiana langsdorfii, Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun’, Tithonia rotundifolia and Verbena rigida.

These days, it is true, half-hardy annuals are mainly planted in containers of one sort or another: tubs, pots, half-barrels and hanging baskets. In the pots and urns that I have placed to emphasise doorways or steps, I grow a range of the cleaner-coloured petunias, such as cascading ‘Blue Wave’, as well as the yellow-flowered Bidens ‘Golden Goddess’ and a number of marguerites (Argyranthemum). Despite their tolerance of shade, I don’t grow the oh, so popular Busy Lizzies (Impatiens) because of their repelling colours and flat, fleshy, mildly creepy foliage.

It is possible that most readers have never planted up a hanging basket, since, suspended and unconnected, these look ridiculous in a garden setting. But they will certainly know them from the pubs they enter and the lampposts they pass in the more self-respecting of our towns and suburbs. And, should they go into a garden centre in late spring, they cannot fail to notice that most of the ‘planteria’ will be given over to small pots or ‘plugs’ of half-hardies, many with habits suitable for containers. For the convenience of customers, these may already be planted out in large plastic containers and hanging baskets.

Plant breeders make strenuous efforts to develop strains of annuals, which will fulfil the most important criteria that the growers and retailers require: colour impact, compact growth, a free-flowering habit, weather resistance, and trueness from seed (since it is more expensive to raise these plants from cuttings). The garden centres strive equally strenuously to make the business less complicated, in order to extract the ‘leisure pound’ from the horticulturally disengaged. The better sort of garden centre will even attempt to show customers what colour and habit combinations will look well together, in ‘recipes’ that take away the guesswork altogether. Instead of selling ‘mixtures’ of flower colour, there is a welcome move towards promoting colour-themed packages of plants.

Every summer, I visit the open-air trial grounds of seedsmen, to inform myself as to what new varieties, even genera, they will be introducing to gardeners (how many people grew angelonias, bacopas, or dichondras ten years ago?). I also look at those which do well in garden conditions each year and note those which I might be tempted to grow in my garden.

This summer has been particularly instructive. One trial ground had been flooded for several days but the only annuals which looked really sick were Nicotiana and Impatiens. The largest-flowered petunias were ragged, but the new, smaller-flowered ‘Shock Wave’ varieties were wonderfully floriferous and almost rain-proof, as they have been in my garden this summer. The plant, however, which has stood both the heat of last summer, and the cool, humid, damp conditions of this, is the orange-red, pendulous-flowered, fleshy-leaved Begonia ‘Million Kisses’. So it’s just a great pity that, like quite a lot of half-hardies, it does not go with anything and isn’t very pretty.