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Just how do you celebrate a century of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show with bedding? - Rohanna Heyes

Posted by Sara Draycott on 05 Jun 2013 at 05:55 PM

Following last week's whirlwind of design and excitement at the Chelsea Flower Show (we Wisley Diploma Trainees get involved working at Chelsea and even get to attend press day-so lucky) I am back gardening at Wisley.

Here I am at the Chelsea Flower Show during build up week, with Christopher Bradley-Hole who designed the Telegraph Garden.

It seems like it was only yesterday when we were sowing seeds and potting up plug plants for the Top Terrace and now we are planting them out, executing the design we made plans for so long ago. It's an exciting time, seeing our paper made plans in a three dimensional light. But it’s also nerve wracking because its in such a prominent location of the garden, despite this it has been a great project to learn from.

The design theme for the summer bedding on Top Terrace this year is the centenary of the Chelsea Flower Show. My design partner (Tina) and I wanted to create a journey through time, using bedding plants with significance to different periods of gardening in the last 100 years. To reflect this timely journey our design begins with a traditional bedding scheme consisting of an edging plant, two filler plants and a dot plant. As you move through the design this conventional layout is deconstructed by spacing the filler plants in decreasingly smaller blocks.


The first paired beds as you enter the design represent the time of heirloom plants, in this case taking the meaning that heirloom plants are those which existed prior to the end of the second world war, after which hybrid varieties became more widespread. The first plant we chose for this bed was Penstemon Andenken an Friedrich Hahn AGM, more commonly known as P. ‘Garnet’. This well known penstemon was bred by Swiss breeder Herman Wartmann in 1918 and is one of the oldest known penstemon hybrids. It was previously awarded an AGM in 1933 and is still an extremely popular garden cultivar today. We chose it for its plum red colouring, early and continued flowering and general reliability. To provide contrast and hopefully some scent we have paired this penstemon with Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ AGM which has flowers almost the colour of a golden delicious apple. Nicotiana alata found its way into British gardens in the late 1820s and the cultivar N. alata ‘Lime Green’ fulfills our heirloom requirements being bred prior to 1950.


Following on from the Heirloom beds you will find the beds which represent breeding
improvements in cultivated plants, we call these the refined cultivars beds. Advances in plant breeding saw the widespread introduction of hybrid plants. In particular F1 hybrids which offer both uniformity and hybrid vigour and by the 1970s hybrid seed had become prolific in commercial seed trade. To represent this theme we chose the F1 hybrid Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’ F1 which we think also has a rather retro appeal. Over the growing season its red veined green leaves will turn almost black. We have teamed it with Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria Blue’, chosen for its striking velvet blue flowers and for its success in last years rather wet summer, it also reportedly performs well in hot dry summers. (We have found it slow to establish in this years rather overcast spring, highlighting that perhaps it grew better last year as it got a great start in the hot dry spring we had.)


The last paired beds symbolise contemporary themes. To epitomise current gardening trends we have paired a grass with Verbena bonariensis, but with our own twist on this ever so common coupling. Here we have used the annual grass Lagurus ovatus AGM commonly known as Hare’s Tail. This grass is teamed with a relatively new cultivar of Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’, which is reportedly shorter than the species and it also has more rounded flower heads, hence the cultivar name ‘Lollipop’. The planting in these beds also reflects the nationwide movement towards planting wildlife-friendly plants and here we hope to encourage discussion around the idea that bedding can be wildlife-friendly too.

Above: You can be sure it will rain the day summer bedding is planted on Top Terrace.

The plants described above are the filler plants used to represent different time frames. To link the design we have used the same edging plants and dot plants throughout. The edging plant we have used is Plecostachys serphyllifolia (formerly known as Helichrysum microphyllum ‘Silver Mist’). Chosen for its silvery glaucous foliage and spreading habit which over time should create a soft edge to the design. Dot plants are used to create a central focal point and provide height and structure to the design. We have used Ricinus communis ‘Zanzibarensis’ and ‘Carmencita’. Ricinus makes a strong feature as a summer bedding plant and its dramatic exotic looking foliage has been used in ornamental cultivation in Britain for over 100years.

A few Problems....
The main problems we had with executing our design were plant related. Our Lagurus ovatus was somewhat overgrown, and in retrospect should have been sown later and could perhaps been grown a little harder and the same was true for the Nicotiana. The Lagurus behaved somewhat floppily when planted and as a result we had to cut it back. We are fairly confident this will encourage bushy growth and the plants will bounce back as anecdotal evidence suggests from a similar situation found when it was grown on Seven Acres last year. Meanwhile the Nicotiana was looking lovely for planting with most plants just coming into bud, and excellent root distribution in the pots they were in. However as the foliage gets bigger it becomes more difficult to handle and is easily damaged, so in future I would aim for a smaller size for planting. We also had poor germination on a Ricinus cultivar (NZ Black) which we sowed in the region of 50 seeds and had only 12 germinate, a disappointing result, but fortunately we had many other cultivars to choose from.

Above: The Lagurus that we sowed too soon!

As you can see creating a bedding scheme is not exactly as easy as drawing pretty patterns on paper, and the way plants grow will vary according to the season. Its good to have a back plan, and to take notes so you can learn from the season. Meanwhlie now that it is planted, all the plants are settling in to their new surroundings. Over the next few weeks the design will grow into itself and hopefully become more how Tina and I envisaged it from the start!


Above: planting complete, queue the sunshine.  Not too long now before it flowers...


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