Fashionable since Victorian times, the latest plant introductions and creative planting designs help to keep them popular.
Successional planting: Many public gardens change the bedding displays twice a year, replanting in late spring (for summer) and early autumn (for winter/spring). However, the highest-maintenance displays require late spring, mid- to late summer and autumn plantings. Whichever regime you choose, this can be done in small gardens too.
For replanting twice a year: try the summer combination of begonia, the flowering seedheads of ornamental grasses (such as Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) and late-flowering salvia and verbena. For winter, plant perennials such as bergenia, cyclamen, hellebores and viola to give interesting foliage as well as flower colour during mild spells.
If you are replanting three times a year: plant en masse with tulips and polyanthus for spring; replacing them with nemesia and alyssum for early summer, then cannas and dahlia for late-summer colour. This generally requires well-developed (larger) plants as they have less time to grow and develop in the ground; but can give a fuller display.
Formal bedding: Mostly for bold displays in public gardens and sometimes used in smaller ornamental parterre gardens, formal beds usually consist of neat, symmetrical patterns. Formal planting should be used for entire beds, in closely planted blocks of colour (often in association with orderly edging plants such as lobelia or even clipped box). Dahlias, geraniums bedding lobelias, salvias (Salvia splendens cultivars) are some of the plants frequently used.
Informal bedding: Bedding plants can be used less formally in the garden, perhaps to brighten up the front of a border or fill bare soil under roses. Straight lines and symmetrical patterns are not compulsory here – it’s more a case of having fun with colour and textures.
Carpet bedding: Carpet bedding is the most intensive form of bedding and uses plants that are so compact and tightly knitted that the appearance is akin to a woven carpet. Designs are often technically complex and can include highly intricate displays such as floral clocks, lettering or coats-of-arms. For the home gardener, designs can be much less elaborate, but still effective. To create the look the design, they should first be sketched on graph paper then executed using contrasting, low-growing, foliage plants such as alternanthera, echeveria, saxifraga, sedum and sempervivum.
Some public gardens use thousands of plants in carpet bedding and obtain computerised plans detailing how many plants are required and what colour and type of plant. You can transfer this idea to a small scale planting scheme.
There are many places to see bedding plants used in displays.
Capel Manor, Middlesex
RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey (carpet bedding is usually in front of the Laboratory)
Tatton Park, Cheshire
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire
RHS Britain in Bloom for more details of award-winning local displays.