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.


Barras-Hargan, L., 2021. The recreational garden as society’s living museum [Blog], Available at: <; [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:<; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

Greater London Authority, 2016. Economic Evidence Base for London 2016. [online] London, pp.136-139. Available at: <; [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: <; [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: <; [Accessed 17 February 2021]. 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: <; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

The English Garden. 2014. Garden features: bedding displays – The English Garden. [online] Available at: <,mid%20to%20late%2019th%20century.&text=The%20practice%20of%20’bedding%20out,flowers%20in%20spring%20and%20summer.&gt; [Accessed 17 February 2021].

The recreational garden as society’s living museum

The influence of botanical and recreational gardens on society as we know it today is undeniable; especially in the last 10 months. Indeed, one public park in England saw an increase in visitors of 640% between the summer of 2019 and 2020 (Covid drives huge increase in use of urban greenspace, 2020). In the last eleven months, as a global pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns confined the public to their homes and locales, open spaces and greenscapes have helped to bolster wellness, morale and education. However, this is not a novel idea, as the use of various tools such as design theory and the panopticon effect have long been used to guide visitors spatially as well as in how they interact with displays. In this essay, I will paint the museum as the blueprint for the educational, recreational garden. I will touch on the historical purpose of public gardens, their role in bringing communities together and how they can be modernised to suit modern values.

In its inception, the museum was not as we know it today – it required much more than a day ticket to enter. In fact, early museums were simply private collections following the precedent set by the Florence-based Medici family. Noblemen commissioned and collected artefacts, artworks and precious objects, as a display of their wealth and superiority (Chen, 2013). Later, simply owning these luxurious items was not enough; an individuals’ collection indicated their levels of taste.  After the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in the early 1700s, rapid modernisation and various industrial revolutions, a shift in power and lack of order gave rise to museums as a tool for educating and controlling the general public and lower echelons of society.

Worldwide collections were curated and displayed in carefully designed buildings. In fact, it was not enough to simply invite in the public and encourage education, the atmosphere and design of these institutions helped to further shape their learning. For example, visitor circulation was considered, with predetermined paths being laid out, using subconscious habits such as invariant right: the theory that when visitors enter a space with “exhibit objects on both walls, they tend to turn right in the absence of other stronger attracting cues” (Whitlow, n.d.). In addition, the panopticon effect was often utilised on split-level viewing platforms, making visitors feel almost as deliberately surveyed as the exhibitions themselves. In theory, this social conditioning and a culture of surveillance was intended to “raise the levels of general education and culture” (Rodini, n.d.), by encouraging groups to conform to the rules and societal norms of the environment. Somewhat crassly put by the first Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Henry Cole, he hoped that this atmosphere would “civilise” visitors by “furnish[ing] a powerful antidote to the gin palace.” (V&A – Building the Museum, 2019). In other words, Cole hoped to keep the working classes out of the pub, and that a prolonged exposure to this educational setting would be assimilated, perhaps through osmosis.

While recreational and botanical gardens may be missing the four walls and fluorescent lighting, their design, history and purpose, was almost identical. Noble people and royal families commissioned expeditions to faraway lands, hunting for exotic flora. Private collections were displayed by these wealthy individuals and tropical plants were kept alive in specially created glasshouses. As with museums, as time passed, these noble families either donated collections, opened up their estates to the public or – in the case of the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew (RBGK) – handed it over to the public. At the RBGK, the same emphasis on order we can see in early museums has lived on, encouraging people to move en masse throughout the park, first taking a right towards the café and Temperate House, as well as the Broad Walk. The movement of visitors is not primarily a tool for socialisation but allows curators and designers to steer the public towards a series of features, in a specific order, which ultimately creates the desired effect. As in museums, there are certain norms that are “known or quickly learned by visitors and are followed by them with a remarkably high degree of compliance” (Trondsen, 1974). For a time, these open spaces were reserved for the upper classes. However, when they were opened to the public, there had to be order.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, prosperous individuals and middle to upper class families naturally gravitated to open spaces. The layout of cities such as London is testament to this. In his book The Making of the British Landscape, Francis Pryor brought attention to this “move by the well-to-do towards open spaces, where their houses could be viewed to better advantage” (2011). This is particularly notable in areas such as Hampstead Heath and Blackheath. Pryor goes on to say that while there were important ‘public’ gardens in areas such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens, “they were never intended for the use of ordinary people, any more than country houses, whose many visitors were invariably from the upper classes” (Pryor, 2011).

Subsequently, the emergence of municipal parks and gardens changed the social trajectory of the lower and working classes. In fact, the first public park of London, Regent’s Park, was only open to ‘subscribers’ for its first 15 years (Uglow, 2005). These open spaces were intended to improve the health and social lives of the lower classes.

A report from 1843 stated:

“with a rapidly increasing population… the means of occasional exercise and recreation in the fresh air are everyday lessened… It is of the first importance to their health on [Mechanics or Manufacturers’] days of rest to enjoy the fresh air, and to be able… to walk out in decent comfort with their families; if deprived of any such resource, it is probable that their only escape from the narrow courts and alleys… will be the drinking shops, where, in short-lived excitement they may forget their toil, but where they waste the means of their families, and too often destroy their health.” (Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Works)

The parallels in language between this extract and that of Sir Henry Cole above are significant in their positioning of the institution as a socialising tool to quash undesirable and anti-social behavior. When the first local authority park Birkenhead Park was opened, granting free entry to the general public, there were rules to follow. The location boasted sports grounds and boating lakes but there was a ban on alcohol, gambling and swearing. The sentiment was simple: if you wanted to enjoy the vast benefits of these open spaces and their facilities, you would have to fit in, and the hope was that this changed behaviour would linger long beyond the park gates. While Cole’s metaphorical ‘gin palace’ has since been replaced by franchised gastro pubs and you are unlikely to be thrown out of Hyde Park for using vulgar language, the sentiment of keeping the order is evident in recreational and botanical gardens, as well as municipal parks to this day.

            While this approach may seem heavy-handed, modern day parks and gardens have adopted a more relaxed approach, welcoming local communities to enjoy their local green spaces however they wish. Public municipal parks commonly feature children’s’ playgrounds, sports grounds, skate parks, eateries, cycle paths and seasonal events. I believe this to be a more effective catalyst for social cohesion than the at times condescending and demonising view of lower classes centuries ago.

            The social benefits of green spaces, particularly in urban areas, are significant. A recent report found that almost three-quarters of people felt spending time outdoors in nature in 2020 helped them to relax and unwind (Covid drives huge increase in use of urban greenspace, 2020). The World Health Organisation goes further in their Review of Urban Green Spaces and Health,  stating that these open spaces can “reduce morbidity and mortality in urban residents by providing psychological relaxation and stress alleviation” (World Health Organisation, 2016). Beyond the grand, extensive urban parks, green spaces of all sizes have been proven to be beneficial. From solitary street trees to roof allotments, green spaces are contagious, with more and more architecture firms building garden plans into their proposals. In addition, social benefits extend beyond the visitors, as was exemplified in the FitzPark project, whereby there was an increase of the number of users that spent up to 30 minutes per visit, which led to more customers for adjacent businesses (Woodason, n.d.). Summed up by the Improving Wellbeing Through Urban Nature report of 2018, about 70% of interviewees volunteered that an outdoor location was their favourite place (Jorgensen, 2018). It is patently clear that people have had an intrinsic connection to nature and value time spent outdoors; now it is important that these outdoors spaces are inclusive and vibrant enough to bring even more people outdoors.  

In a recent seminar presented by Nigel Dunnett for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society, the garden designer and ecologist encouraged horticulturalists to meet the public on their level, avoiding highly technical language and alienating themes when trying to encourage a passion for the outdoors and plants in general (Dunnett, 2020). Indeed, upon noticing a patch of flattened perennials at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park he co-designed, he did not cordon off the area or scold the culprits; instead, he paved over this spot, creating a space where people could immerse themselves in the plants. In this same way, local people should shape their experiences of nature and be encouraged to have those important interactions with plants, free of judgement and in an environment where they feel welcomed. This will undoubtedly lead to the integrally related health, social and environmental benefits.

Fortunately for some of the population this past year, urban parks, pocket city gardens and botanical gardens have been only a short walk – and the flash of a members’ card – away. However, for marginalised communities, these recreational, educational and wellness spaces can exist behind an invisible cordon. Converse to their historical purpose of inviting in the non-bourgeois working class and lifting them up through education and social conditioning, contemporary recreational gardens can fall short through lack of representation and traces of colonial violence, domination and theft, particularly in the exhibitions presented at botanical gardens. Fortunately, unlike museums filled with immovable artefacts, gardens change season to season and are alive with new possibilities. By pioneering inclusivity, incorporating multi-use spaces, improving accessibility and listening to communities, the countless societal benefits of green spaces will prevail – for everyone.


Chen, K., 2013. The Disciplinary Power of Museums. International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, pp.407-410.

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

Jorgensen, P., 2018. Improving Well-Being Through Urban Nature (IWUN): What We Know So Far.

NatureScot. 2020. Covid Drives Huge Increase In Use Of Urban Greenspace. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 22 January 2021].

Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Works, 1843. Report On The Select Committee On Public Works. p.3.

Pryor, F., 2011. The Making Of The British Landscape. London: Penguin Books.

Rodini, D., n.d. The Changing Social Functions Of Art Museums. [online] Khan Academy. Available at: <; [Accessed 22 January 2021].

Trondsen, N., 1976. Social Control in the Art Museum. Urban Life, 5(1), pp.105-119.

Uglow, J., 2005. A Little History Of British Gardening. London: Pimlico.

Victoria and Albert Museum. 2019. V&A · Building The Museum. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 22 January 2021].

Whitlow, A., n.d. Right Place, Right Time. [online] Quinine. Available at: <; [Accessed 22 January 2021].

Woodason, E., n.d. Fitzpark: How Small Sites Can Have A Big Impact On Wellbeing.

World Health Organisation, 2016. Urban Green Space Interventions And Health: A Review Of Impacts And Effectiveness. [online] Available at: <,and%20reducing%