Few people realize that gardening is as much driven by current fashion as are most other aspects of popular culture. Take annuals for instance. You can hardly move about the nursery these days without bumping into some newly discovered or hybridized cultivar (often to the detriment of older varieties – just try for instance, finding a flat of tall blue ageratum) each one reportedly better than the next for this or that use in the landscape. But when I started gardening 40 years ago, this wasn’t at all the case; annuals were definitely out, elbowed aside by fatigue from generations of blaring orange marigolds and red geraniums. Mention coleus to a serious gardener and you were more likely to get a laugh; salvia produced outright derision. Today the exact opposite is the case. Interestingly, this sea change has happened several times before: in the 1840s, the 1920s and again in the 50s. The most dramatic occurrence, however, was the first, and led to an entirely new style of gardening called “bedding out.”
First a bit of history: previous to 1840, gardeners had to content themselves with a fairly narrow list of flowering plants, many of which had descended directly from the gardens of the Middle Ages. Most were perennial, or biennial (today, an almost forgotten class of plants.) Then, two seemingly unrelated events conspired to tip the gardening world on its head: an onerous English tax on glass, which had made large panes a great luxury, was repealed, suddenly making the greenhouse or conservatory affordable to the middle classes. Second, the increased ease of travel and commerce in the early part of the 1800s had brought a large number of previously unknown, non-hardy plants to the market, which breeders soon hybridized into a wide array of never-before-seen colors and sizes. Today with our nurseries literally stuffed to the rooftops with tender plants from all over the globe, it’s hard to realize what an impact these novelties made on the gardening world at the time. Gardeners were simply agog at these new plants, and rushed to find ways to grow them. Of course a place had to be created for these beauties in the garden, and thus a whole new landscape movement was born—annual bedding out. This trend reached our shores after the Civil War, and our gardening habits changed forever. In fact, when you scurry out to the nursery each spring to buy the latest petunia, you follow in the footsteps of your Victorian garden predecessors.
To keep these Victorian carpet beds (so called because the patterns resembled a decorative carpet) always at their best, the plants were often changed 3 or 4 times a season. Commonly, the show started with a large display of spring bulbs, which were removed immediately after flowering and replaced with early spring annuals like pansies. The Victorians adored pansies, but when these velvety flowers faded in the summer heat, the plants were ruthlessly removed and replaced with heat-loving summer annuals, which in turn were replaced in the late fall with a final show cold tolerant plants.
The placement and shape of these Victorian flower gardens were also unique. Cut out of the turf and edged with beautifully worked iron surrounds or clay tiles, these beds were created in a wide assortment of shapes—circles, squares, diamonds, crosses, tear drops and other variations—all intricately subdivided into masses of annual flowers.
Though they appeared in plan view as if they were flat and everything was of uniform height, in reality these beds were three dimensional. They were almost always raised in the center, either by mounding the ground, or by using the tallest material in the center and gradually lowering the plant height toward the outer edges.
The only difficulty with carpet beds (aside from the cost of all the plants, which is considerable) is in their maintenance. Any spent flowers and dead leaves must be rigorously removed in order to keep the beds looking presentable, which in the heat of summer can amount to quite a lot of work. Also, depending on what material you choose, you may need to replant sections as the plants fall out of flower. (You can avoid this chore by choosing ever-blooming flower varieties). When well done, the effect of the Victorian annual bed is truly something to behold. You can understand why these opulent beds could be found, at one level skill or another, in most American landscapes between 1865 and 1900.
Like most fads, however, carpet bedding eventually passed out of fashion after the turn of the century, killed off partly by the number of bad examples of the form. (Carpet bedding is easy to do badly, given the loud and often glaring color combinations possible with annuals.) But another factor was at work: in a further fashion twist, the cottage gardening style had been “rediscovered” and suddenly became the latest thing…
That, however, is a fascinating tale for another day.