Begonia elatior 'Frivola Pink'

Begonia ‘Frivola Pink’ looks great in beds, borders, or in patio containers
Image: Thompson & Morgan

If you enjoyed watching ‘The Great British Garden Revival’ then you’ll be aware of Christine Walkden’s passionate campaign to bring back ornamental bedding plants. The magnificent displays often seen at grand country houses like Waddesdon Manor and seaside towns like Eastbourne are still incredibly popular.

Descended from the Victorians’ love of the art of ornamental bedding, these “eye-catching displays were the gardening ‘bling’ of yesteryear,” explained Christine. Here’s how to stage your own mini-revival, using the latest cutting-edge bedding plants bred for size, colour, disease-resistance and longevity.

The evolution of bedding plants

Gardening news - Great British Garden Revival

Michael Perry and Christine Walkden talk ornamental bedding in T&M’s trial grounds

As part of Christine’s Revival of Ornamental Bedding, she visited Thompson & Morgan’s trial grounds to meet with product development manager, Michael Perry. T&M’s trial grounds are home to over 500 new types of plants. This is where the company tests whether new plants are true to type, and where new varieties are grown and compared to existing ones to track and monitor improvements.

Despite new varieties becoming available each year, T&M finds that traditional plants continue to be most popular. Michael says that “people recognise the names and know that they’ll work in their gardens, but we’d really like people to move towards newer varieties that perhaps perform better, or have better disease resistance.”

Michael explains that Marigold ‘Jesters Mixed’ is a great example of this: “It’s so much bigger than the traditional one – you get much more plant for your money. It stops the weeds coming through, so it’s a natural weed suppressant. It also mulches the ground, so you’ll need to water a lot less as you’re covering the ground naturally and won’t have so much bare soil that needs to be maintained.

Breeding disease-resistant bedding plants

Busy Lizzie ‘Divine Mixed’ from T&M

Busy Lizzie ‘Divine’ quickly covers beds and borders
Image: Busy Lizzie ‘Divine Mixed’ from Thompson & Morgan

A few years ago, the UK’s best selling annual bedding plant, the Busy Lizzie, was struck down and destroyed by an epidemic. The disease was ‘downy mildew’, an airborne disease that most of the common Walleriana Busy Lizzies were susceptible to. It was so bad that this former stalwart of British bedding that sold almost 35m plants a year was removed from garden centres nationwide. Michael Perry said, “the plants literally melted and were unrecoverable, so the only solution was to grow resistant varieties.

In answer to the problem, T&M developed Busy Lizzie ‘Divine’ which has completely different genetics to traditional Busy Lizzies. It was bred to produce bigger and better flowers, and to be more resilient to all sorts of weather conditions – hot, dry, wet or cold. “It really is a ‘super Busy Lizzie’. The traditional varieties prefer shade, but ‘Divine’ loves both sun and shade, making it even more versatile,” according to Michael.

Bedding plants bred for performance

Begonia semperflorens 'Lotto Mixed' from Thompson & Morgan

New and improved begonias like ‘Lotto Mixed’ flower right through until October
Image: Begonia semperflorens ‘Lotto Mixed’ from Thompson & Morgan

If you want to revive the ornamental bedding display in your garden, T&M is continually cultivating new varieties that are cheaper and easier to grow. Here are Michael’s top tips for new and improved versions of popular plants suitable for any sized garden…

Begonias

The traditional bedding begonia semperflorens ‘Organdy’ has blooms that never fully open, stunted growth, and it isn’t really weatherproof. However, begonia ‘Lotto’ (image above) delivers much bigger plants, spreads into landscape-style growth, has large clear flowers and leaves like water lily pads, and is happy in any weather.

Antirrhinum vs Penstemon

Annual antirrhinums die down to the ground every year. The traditional snapdragons are lovely and pretty, but they don’t flower for long. A good alternative is a perennial hardy penstemon, such as ‘Wedding Bells’, which flowers for a staggering 5-6 months. This variety is also really tough and resilient in the garden.

Alstroemeria

Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’, also known as Peruvian lily, flowers for 5-6 months and hosts lovely bronze foliage. The plants are compact with an upright habit, yet still produce stems which are a good length for cutting.

Gerberas

Gerberas are very exciting, and brand new breeding brings us gerbera ‘Sweet Collection’. Growing gerberas outside was unthinkable 10 years ago, yet modern breeding has enabled varieties like this to be grown in the border all year round. This variety is hardy down to -10C and the plants will come back every year with lovely big, florist quality, daisy-like blooms, which are twice the size of other hardy gerbera flowers.

A revival really is taking place, bedding is changing and your choices are much wider than they used to be. There is no limit to what you can do with ornamental bedding. Visit our begonias hub page for links to begonia growing and care information. For more bedding recommendations and tips to create a fantastic display, head over to our bedding plant hub.

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