Bedding Out

Bedding out annual plants was a seasonal planting practice very popular from the late 1860’s until the turn of the century. Victorian gardeners, particularly of an English persuasion, reveled in planting seasonal and tropical plants in intricate patterns in ground resembling rugs. Or clocks. Or other objects and events. Or giant shapes all of one color and cultivar of plant. It seems so difficult to understand this concept of annual in ground gardening now, as modern gardeners are used to having thousands of cultivars of annual plants available to buy or grow from seed. What probably drove the fad as much as anything was the recent availability of tropical and annual plants that would bloom all summer long. The Victorian gardens took their plant choice liberation seriously.  They planted everything they could find.

The Victorians-they embellished everything they had a mind to.  Architecture, fashion-and gardening. I will confess to have bedded out many thousands of annual plants over a period of 10 years during my tenure as the garden designer for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Of course a resort hotel dating back to the Victorian era would ask for gardens reminiscent of the same period. One season I designed and Rob drew a scale plan for a for a long curving bed with the Stars and Stripes. Every bedding out garden I designed for them included decorative dirt. Those dirt spaces enabled discreet maintenance paths, but they also enabled a clear and crisp definition of the pattern.

Even the simplest pattern relied on planting a large area for the pattern to read properly. Bedding out large areas took lots of plants. Annual plants are a fairly inexpensive source of gardening pleasure, but planting lots of them is expensive.

Although few residential gardeners plant annuals in ground on this scale, some commercial properties still do a big job of bedding out annuals. The expansive shapes and bright colors are cheery and inviting. Detroit Garden Works does have a moderately sized annual garden out front, which is planted in a different way every year. It is part of what makes a visit to the shop enjoyable and interesting. We plant tulips in the spring, and hope the summer annuals persist until late fall.  Though the Victorians embellished everything they touched, more modern gardeners are looking for a more simple splash of color. I do not bed out in the classical definition of the term any more. But I do plant seasonal plants in the ground. Any request for annual plantings in ground that come to me suggest a mix of plants.

My primary attraction to a mix of plants has to do with spreading out the risk. If the salvia in this bed has a bad year, the petunias might be able to carry the day.  It is just good planning to plant any large in ground area I need to plant with a collection of plants.  I like to hedge my bets. The plant mix first and foremost asks for plants that like similar growing conditions.

So I mix the plants before I mix the colors. Nature has a way of turning the tide when you least expect it, so I always design with the possibility of trouble in mind. Designing a mix is easy. You need three colors for a mix to be even. In this bed, I planted white petunias between each of the other colors. White lightens and brightens the overall scheme. White provides a very strong contract to every other color nearby – even pastel colors. Adding a 4th and 5th plant to a planting scheme can be very busy. Noisy, even. This bed with 3 types of plants- tall florist’s ageratum, petunias, and sky blue Cathedral salvia – and 5 colors will be visually fairly quiet, as all of the colors are closely related.

Viewed on the diagonal, this bed will have distinct stripes, given the placement of the white petunias between each of the other two petunia colors.  I will be interested to see how the look shifts from different points of view once this bed has grown in. I rarely plant at the shop until all of my clients have their flowers, so this was planted but 2 weeks ago.  Given that the soil is warm, they will grow fast. To follow are pictures of a few of the in ground plantings we did this year.

This is a relatively small planting area, but a small planting area does not have to be uninteresting. The biggest challenge will be keeping water intended for the lawn out of this area. All of these plants thrive in fairly dry conditions once they are established.

The other small planting areas on either side of the walk feature a purple mix of petunias and scaevola, punctuated with a dash of lime licorice.

White petunias, cirrus dusty miller, and lime licorice make for an unusual color scheme, which is exactly what my clients like.

The cirrus dusty miller will provide a little height, and the licorice and petunias will weave in and out of one another.

The mix in the pots is pink, red and red violet, leavened with variegated licorice.

in ground, a mix of 3 colors of petunias.

This small garden area features 2 colors of dwarf cleome, verbena bonariensis, petunias in several colors, white angelonia and white phlox.

A little 4th of July style visual fireworks will energize this small space at the side door all summer long.


  1. lisa narozanick says

    Your color and plant combinations are just phenomenal and inspirational!! Getting your email is the best part of my day!

  2. Joyce Baker says

    Thank you for the time you take to amaze the reader with ideas that we can adapt to our own gardens. Always a joy to receive your newsletter.

  3. I always hesitate to plant petunias because they get leggy/need pinching. They seem high maintenance. You don’t have that problem?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Ellen, I sometimes pinch back petunias in pots, but I make a routine to do a few stems regularly, so it doesn’t seem like so much work.In the ground, I let them ramble. The vista series is self cleaning, compact and very floriferous-you might want to try them. best, Deborah

  4. Pat Ferguson says

    Thank you again for all your sharing and beautiful pictures. You have given me combo ideas. I have never heard of the licorice plant.
    It was interesting to hear about your time working at The Grand Hotel. That is on my bucket list. When I go I will be sure to check out the gardens.
    Happy 4th!
    PS. Your birthday post was very thoughtfully written. I teared up at your words. Happy Belated Birthday! Some of us are lucky to have lots of birthdays.


  5. Katherine Stephens says

    I don’t have a garden of my own presently so I am doubly enjoying yours. Thank you

  6. I grew up in England in the 40s and 50s and my mother was a keen gardener but oh, so different from me. She bedded out every year with alternating Sweet Alyssum (or Little Dorrit as she called it), blue Lobelia and pink Pelargoniums, all around the edges of beds carved out in the lawn, planted with Peace roses, (which were liberally doused with Epsom salts). It was very formal and rigid but was the style in those days.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Suzanne, your description of your Mom’s garden is hilarious. It actually sounds pretty! It would not be my style either, but I would never fault anyone for how they plant. That’s what makes gardening interesting. all the best, Deborah

  7. Lynn K Balog says

    Like you, I also love doing a mixed bed planting of annuals each year so I REALLY enjoyed this blog. This year I planted Angelonia (Serena white), Easy Wave Petunias (pink passion), Liberty Snapdragons (White), Cathedral Salvia (deep blue) and Ageratum (Hawaii blue) – very girlie colors but pretty. You and your blog are incredible and inspire me to do more in my garden each year!

  8. Marguerite says

    Thank you Deborah, for this and every post, they always educate and delight me at the same time. Were all educations thus! As I get older, in my garden I become more and more enamored of foliage, and annual/colors are what goes on in the pots on my deck. Still in this, I find my palette skewed to colors that personally give me a feeling of peace : lavenders,, whites, blues, purples, greys, licorice, sweet potato vines, ice plants and always sweet alyssum for their colors and their heavenly scent. I am absolutely in love with your licorice, dusty miller and white planting scheme, and I will def. “quote” you next year in a pot or two. That color combo gives me so much pleasure! I second Liza’s motion above my comment, getting your email is def. the best part of my day! Happy Fourth and wishing you and your wonderful team the very best for joy health and peace.

  9. Always love your posts.
    Do you have pics of the “stars and stripes” design? Would love to see them posted.
    Happy 4th!!

  10. Lovely plantings. British gardens are pretty formal. I love visiting London parks for the loveliness of the garden spaces. I’m sure they have full time gardeners to maintain parks in the UK. So unlike most of our parks that are filled with baseball and soccer fields, and tennis and basketball courts. With picnic tables and benches in and around grassy areas. .

  11. virginia cameron says

    I discovered you this morning and So enjoyed your pictures.
    My question is what annuals are deer and others critters resistant.
    Thank you

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Virginia, there are lots of great articles on line about deer resistant plants. best regards, Deborah

  12. Carol Johnson says

    I would love to see some pictures of your flower carpets. I work at a country club and have started doing this at the tennis courts. I could not find any instructions on how to do it so just started with trial and error. Biltmore does this every year and did quilting squares one year and it was beautiful. I have done our logo and a holly leaf one year and a tennis ball this year. My challenge is finding annuals to do what I need them to do and keep the pattern all season long.

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