Carpet bedding is not exactly the same as planting out bedding plants in your garden.
There may be patches of soil on show between your bedding plants. You may have planted them with no particular pattern in mind, or you may have drifts of colour. That is using bedding plants in your garden – and very nice they can look too.
However, carpet bedding is more complex and arguably more decorative; it’s certainly meant to be more artistic.
What is Carpet Bedding?
It is a style of gardening with mainly, but not exclusively, foliage plants to create intricate designs giving a tapestry or carpet effect.
The small plants are placed closely together, so that the initial gaps are soon covered as they grow. There should certainly be no gaps between the plants by 2-3 weeks after planting. The overall finished effect is of a tightly woven carpet, hence the name, carpet bedding.
Visualise a Persian carpet with intermingling, brightly coloured geometric shapes; these are like the more complex designs. Simpler designs will still be decorative. Think of some of those you’ve seen in public parks, gardens open to the public and flower shows. For example, floral clocks, coats of arms, designs to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee
Just as many knot garden designs had been copied from books, so too with carpet bedding. The Hampton Court displays (see below) were taken from an 1877 book by Nathan Cole.
Designs would have been copied onto graph paper and then transferred onto the prepared border. Chalk lines or pegs and twine delineated where each block of plants was to go. These days it is possible to have a design turned into a planting plan using computer software.
design for carpet bedding 1884, George Nicholson
Strictly speaking, carpet bedding should be made up of non-flowering, foliage plants. This gives uniformity from beginning to end of the display’s lifespan. Echeverias and sempervivums were particularly popular among the new plant introductions. Where flowering plants were used in displays, the flowers were removed. Foliage ruled the day.
A Brief History of Carpet Bedding
The history of carpet bedding lies in the formal parterre gardens of the seventeenth century and the earlier Tudor knot gardens. These geometric patterns were designed to be viewed from above. Despite many plants introduced from the New World of the Americas during the sixteenth century, there was a more limited range of plants than we have today. In order to extend the season of interest coloured stones and shells were used as part of the pattern.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a vastly increased range of plants became available. Plant explorers had been searching for new plants for some time, but generally as part of a wider remit. Much of the emphasis on discovering new lands was for political rather than horticultural reasons.
One of the main problems was the care of plants on their journey back to Europe. Most successful new introductions were from bulbs, rhizomes and seeds rather than mature plants. The creation of the Wardian case and its use for transportation from the 1830s was a momentous leap forward.
With the selection of plants available to us today, it is perhaps difficult to comprehend the impact that all these newly discovered plants had. The new finds included annuals. For example, Petunias and tender perennials which were treated as annuals, such as Pelargoniums. These plants were not only new, colourful and exciting, but they also grew quickly.
Like many other fashions and fads in gardening, carpet bedding and bedding plant schemes have been in and out of favour. Popular now, in the early twenty-first century, it was a favourite style in the 1920s and 1950s. But its heyday was most definitely the first time round in the early and mid-nineteenth century.
Victorian Carpet Bedding
The introduction of so many suitable plants conveniently dovetailed in with the repeal of the glass, or window, tax. First introduced in 1696, with later amendments, it was a deeply unpopular tax, and had negative impact on the housing and health of the poorer sections of society. The final repeal in 1851 was based on health grounds.
However, one of the unexpected results was that the urban middle classes could suddenly afford orangeries, conservatories and glasshouses. Owning these buildings enabled them to enjoy the new exotic plant species that were being found and brought to Britain. They were able to give the tender bedding plants the protection they needed when young; or rather their gardeners were.
There were different types of bedding schemes loved and used by the Victorians. Variations included
- ribbon bedding
- plain bedding
- carpet bedding
Ribbon bedding was often used in long borders adjacent to pathways. It consisted of long strips of colour (ribbons) scroll patterns or Greek key designs. Plain bedding, obviously, consisted of less complicated patterns.
Many of the designs were cut out of lawn areas, so their bright colours were set off by the green grass. Some were edged with tiles or low ironwork. Simple geometric shapes – circles, squares, crosses – were popular. As the trend continued, the designs became more intricate. Plain bedding became ribbon bedding and carpet bedding.
Public parks were particular devotees of carpet bedding and bedding schemes. The changing displays over the seasons gave visitors a reason to flock in and use the park’s facilities. Some parks charged for entrance. Perhaps this ‘come and see our new bedding display’ could be one means of funding for our parks today.
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was an occasion for many floral tributes and carpet bedding displays.
Carpet Bedding today
The lack of gardeners and other staff following the First World War had an enormous impact on large country house gardens in particular. Intensive gardening styles, requiring careful planning and preparation and much ongoing maintenance were to a large degree replaced with easier to maintain herbaceous borders.
Public Parks and organisations continue to use various types of bedding schemes to commemorate anniversaries and events. However, the simpler bedding displays, often with a framework of perennial planting, have become the norm. Although even bedding displays can be hard work, and should be appreciated as such.
Waddesdon Manor has become famous again for its bedding schemes. The Rothschilds were devotees of the high Victorian style of gardening. Following the gardens’ restoration, carpet bedding schemes re-appeared.
This video from Waddesdon Manor shows the gardeners planting up their annual carpet bedding display. The chosen design is created on a special computer programme, which then provides the plan for the planting.
At Hampton Court Palace, gardeners created lovely carpet bedding displays to celebrate the Year of the Garden. These are replicas of a design which was originally created for the gardens 140 years ago. The gardeners took advantage when the cherry picker was there for tree pruning to take birdseye view photos of the beds. (click the link to see all the bedding displays)
High Victorian carpet bedding displays are probably too labour intensive for most of us. But it would be possible to create a simpler and effective display for a special occasion – or just as a change. It could look particularly stunning as a front garden design for example.
I will return to bedding schemes another time, and share some tips on creating one for yourself including preparation. If you’d like personal design and consultancy do please get in touch. But for now, enjoy your garden!
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