The perennial question: are we beyond seasonal bedding?

While bedding is a pillar of gardening, and in particular European gardening, bedding schemes have long been a point of contention, with some industry leaders suggesting they be totally eradicated from our gardening plans, and others suggesting they be kept for their social and cultural benefits. As with most topics like this, there is likely a happy medium that can be reached to improve certain aspects of life without detracting from others. In this research I will be looking into the environmental, economic, social and cultural impact of seasonal bedding and referencing case studies and garden designers who may have found solutions.

Bedding is by no means a novel gardening concept, and dates back to the 17th Century, when the practice of ‘bedding out’ involved planting plants raised in greenhouses in spring and summer (Garden features: bedding displays – The English Garden, 2014). By the Victorian era, bedding schemes were at their height. This coincided with two important developments: newly discovered exotic plants and advancing postal and railway networks. Seeds could be sent all over the country, where bedding schemes entered small suburban gardens in the 1880s. Elaborate shapes and designs were incorporated into the garden, with island beds placed in the middle of lawns and butterfly-shaped displays becoming a common occurrence. Low plants would be used to create dense carpet bedding, which would sometimes create images or lettering in the design. It was also believed that this dense planting would help to suppress weeds!  Bedding was so loved at the time that author George Moore wrote that it had an effect “so dazzling and satisfactory as to make this style of gardening popular with all lovers of the beautiful” (Moore, 1888).

While beauty may seem immeasurable, one of the major benefits of bedding cited currently is the colour and beauty it brings, particularly to urban settings, where moments of colour are rare in the concrete jungle. From a private gardening perspective, bedding plants offer instant impact – from March onwards, bedding plants are readily available as plug plants and, depending which species are chosen, may last until the autumn. A study conducted in 2019 cited that encountering greenery can help to generate cognitive, affective and psychophysiological benefits, reducing stress and attention fatigue (Hedblom et al., 2019). In other words, natural environments provide restful experiences where direct attention is not required. It is clear that having these green spaces readily available in high stress environments such as the financial hubs of global cities such as London can be beneficial.

While colour in the city is important and the connection between wellbeing and green spaces is undeniable, bedding may not necessarily be the best option. Studies show that informal gardens are perceived as more restorative than formal displays, which can mean that while traditional bedding displays may add in some much needed colour in winter months, they are not as effective as more informal ferneries, as an example. Another important point raised in this same 2019 study is the multi-sensory importance of green spaces. In their research, scientists discovered that individuals generally responded negatively to the lack of non-visual natural stimuli, citing that they missed the ‘smells and sounds’ of nature. The most important factor: smell. Researchers have suggested that city garden designers put their energy and resources into creating ‘smellscapes’, as high pleasantness ratings of the green spaces were linked to “low physiological stress responses for olfactory and to some extent for auditory, but not for visual stimuli” (Hedblom et al., 2019). It is clear: if we are looking to use bedding displays as a way to improve mental health and stress levels in busy city workers, we need to provide an experience that does not solely rely on a visual impact, like as does bedding. Currently, urban planners prioritise visual stimuli, but multisensory qualities need to be considered. 

In the case of urban council gardening, a certain balance has to be struck between the longest, best colour for the lowest cost. This is why annual plants are such a common and favored choice – they are cost effective, with whole trays of winter bedding plug plants costing around £7.99. For only 20p per plant, it is no wonder that annual bedding displays have continued to be so popular in built-up areas, where redevelopment into herbaceous perennial displays would cost hundreds of pounds.

However, it is important to look into the accumulated costs of bedding displays over the years, because while a sub-£100 bedding display may be appealing, the cost of purchase, transportation, planting, maintenance, watering, removal and disposal quickly add up, especially when bedding is updated every six months. The average bedding display can cost anywhere between £90 – £3000, depending on the size of the bed and the display. In the space of five years or less, the cheapest bedding displays cost the same as a low-cost herbaceous perennial renovation, with plants that would last for decades, if cared for correctly. With ever tightening budgets, it is likely that we will see urban garden planners opting for planting schemes with more longevity and less maintenance work required.

Waste is another grave concern when it comes to bedding plants, as they are – by nature – ephemeral. The bulk of bedding plants are either annual, biennial, half-hardy annuals or perennials grown as annuals. This means that all but the latter are likely to be added to green waste or composted. Some people justify single-use plants due to their compostability. However, when looking at the The 3Rs model: ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’, recycling is the final step, with reducing and reusing as priorities. Indeed, recycling is a better option that knowingly sending waste to landfill, however, there are copious tales of people’s recycled waste being incinerated or sent to other countries, where it ends up in landfill anyway. In fact, Westminster council sent 82% of all household waste (including waste put in recycling bins) to be incinerated in 2017/18 (Franklin-Wallace, 2019). As such, recycling is not a viable counterargument for reducing the use of annual bedding plants, and some councils are even considering stopping recycling services entirely. The best thing we could do is reduce the number of single-use plants, while filling up bedding displays with perennial plants that can later be reused (or replanted), perhaps as a gapping up scheme, for example. Nonetheless, bedding schemes are time consuming as is and it is unlikely that councils will want to dedicate the extra time it takes to carefully remove, transport, store, care for and replant used bedding plants.

Another perspective is the economic impact removing bedding could have, as well as the job losses that might result. As of 2018, the Oxford Economic report on the Economic Impact of Ornamental Horticulture in the UK found that ornamental plant production (of which, some will be bedding plant production) contributes to 4% of direct employment in the horticulture industry (Oxford Economic, 2018). This amounts to 15,700 jobs working in growing all ornamental plants. In fact, pot plants, including bedding plants, were valued at £297m in 2017. Sadly, this is close to a quarter of the value of all ornamental plant production (where hardy ornamental nursery stock is valued at £933m and flowers and bloom are valued at £121m). As such, it is evident that this a small part of the horticulture industry as a whole. It is unlikely that bedding displays would be entirely removed and it is far more conceivable that perennial plants would simply be used in the place of annuals. This means that the bedding plant sector would likely be absorbed by the hardy perennial nursery stock sector and jobs would likely be secure due to transferrable skills that are non-specific to growing bedding plants. It is important also to note that as industries progress, it is not uncommon for job losses to occur. Similar to the end of the industrial revolution, a movement towards more environmentally friendly and renewable energy sources led to some people losing their jobs. However, retraining and changing approach led to many people remaining in employment, and simply changing their field.

A great concern for those against bedding planting is the lack of pollination possible, due to some plants being bred not to be pollinated. Some bedding plants either have no nectar or pollen or bees cannot access it. While this is not true for all bedding plants, it is interesting to observe the contrast between the impassioned drive towards pollinators by industry leaders such as Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society and the continued use of these plants in bedding schemes. Appointed last year, the new President of the RHS Keith Weed stressed his interest in promoting the growth of diverse plants that could be beneficial to pollinators (Keith Weed appointed as the new RHS President seeks to accelerate the positive impact of gardening on our lives, society and the environment, 2020). It is important that those in the industry consistently reassess their practices and ensure they are up to date with industry standards and innovations.

Another important point is the issue of design and planning of bedding schemes. While bedding can offer beautiful swathes of colour, stunning form and beautiful repetition, these design principles are often overlooked in favour of quick, cheap and easy planting schemes. Unfortunately, these planting schemes do not offer the beauty that the aforementioned George Moore wrote so passionately about. In fact, some planting schemes that use only one species are less diverse than a garden lawn, where blends of grass species are used. As such, some bedding schemes are more of a monoculture than a lawn and certainly do not offer the ecological benefits that a varied herbaceous perennial border would, for example, either for pollinators, vertebrates or soil organisms, particularly when disturbed by the twice annual cultivation of the soil and often a lack of routine mulching to return the nutrients and keep an adequate soil texture.

Another approach is that of Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough. These garden designers and ecologists are well-known for their planting. They prioritise colour, texture, form, ecology and the very important social interactions with nature that people in cities so rarely have. By using herbaceous perennials that flower in bright swathes and plants that look just as good in the depths of winter, people can enjoy the planting for longer. Furthermore, their planting choices and general approach to garden design is significant. In a recent Kew Mutual Improvement Society lecture, Nigel Dunnett spoke of meeting the public on their level, avoiding highly technical language (Dunnett, 2020). In addition, he used a recent example of his work and how he tries to reach people and encourage a special moment with nature. At the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which he co-designed, he discovered a patch of flattened perennial plants in the days after the site was opened to the public. Instead of cordoning off the area, he made this a feature, where people could take photos and immerse themselves in the plants (Barras-Hargan, 2021). This immersive and tactile nature of bedding planting may be stopping the public from interacting with it and reaping the same benefits of an informal herbaceous planting, with just as much colour, but truly multi-sensory.

One final point that must be considered when talking about the use of bedding in urban spaces is the cost of land. London is currently the greenest major city in Europe, with 40,000 hectares of green space, or 25% of London (Ledsom, 2019). In London overall, industrial land costs an average of £490 per square metre and residential land costs £1,570 per square metre (Greater London Authority, 2016). When we consider the value of some central city sites, it is important to assess how they are being used and if the current use correlates with the value of the space. Here are a few ways a 20 square metre space in the centre of a city could be used, with the aim of balancing the environmental, social, economic and ecological issues around bedding:

  • Sensory garden for those with disabilities, utilizing planting at different heights, plants with interesting textures and prioritising scent
  • Potager garden producing yields to be enjoyed by local communities, alongside ornamental plants
  • Pocket wildlife garden for schools nearby to visit and try to spot the pollinators
  • Wellness garden using a combination of cooling water features and tall, enveloping planting to transport the visitor away from the city
  • Historical garden showcasing traditional bedding schemes and techniques, as an educational tool

It is clear that there is no single way forwards on the topic of bedding. As always, the best step involves compromising. By limiting single-use plants, combining perennial plants with a small number of annuals, reusing plants when the season is over, and considering innovative uses for high-value spaces, we can start to create spaces that offer more. If tradition and heritage are the only reasons for having as much bedding as we do, our approach needs to change, urgently. These spaces need to be beneficial for people, the environment and ecology, as well as cost effective. Until this balance is reached, or come close to, bedding is going to continue to be a contentious issue.

Referencing:

Barras-Hargan, L., 2021. The recreational garden as society’s living museum [Blog] Liligardens.net, Available at: <https://liligardens.net/2021/02/07/the-recreational-garden-as-societys-living-museum/&gt; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

Dunnett, N., 2020. Future Nature, Transformational Green.

Franklin-Wallace, O., 2019. ‘Plastic recycling is a myth’: what really happens to your rubbish?. The Guardian, [online] Available at:<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-recycling-myth-what-really-happens-your-rubbish&gt; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

Greater London Authority, 2016. Economic Evidence Base for London 2016. [online] London, pp.136-139. Available at: <https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/economic_evidence_base_2016.compressed.pdf&gt; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

Hedblom, M., Gunnarsson, B., Iravani, B., Knez, I., Schaefer, M., Thorsson, P. and Lundström, J., 2019. Reduction of physiological stress by urban green space in a multisensory virtual experiment. Scientific Reports, 9(1).

Ledsom, A., 2019. What Is London’s National Park City Status And Which Other Cities Will Follow?. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexledsom/2019/07/30/what-is-londons-national-city-park-status-and-which-other-cities-will-follow/?sh=655c27c87a7a&gt; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

Moore, G., 1888. Semi-tropical bedding and carpet gardening. London: Forgotten Books.

Oxford Economic, 2018. The Economic Impact of Ornamental Horticulture in the UK. [online] Oxford: Oxford Economics, pp.2-14. Available at: <https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/pdf/The-economic-impact-of-ornamental-horticulture-and.pdf&gt; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

Rhs.org.uk. 2020. Keith Weed appointed as the new RHS President seeks to accelerate the positive impact of gardening on our lives, society and the environment. [online] Available at: <https://www.rhs.org.uk/press/releases/Keith-Weed-appointed-as-the-new-RHS-President?type=0&tag=&gt; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

The English Garden. 2014. Garden features: bedding displays – The English Garden. [online] Available at: <https://www.theenglishgarden.co.uk/expert-advice/design-solutions/garden_features_bedding_displays_1_3833400/#:~:text=Origins,mid%20to%20late%2019th%20century.&text=The%20practice%20of%20’bedding%20out,flowers%20in%20spring%20and%20summer.&gt; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

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