Bedding plants FAQs

What is a bedding plant?

It is any type of flowering plant that is set out in a bed or border to give a few months’ display of colour. Bedding plants are used mainly in summer and in spring. They can either be planted in beds on their own or used to fill gaps among herbaceous and other plants. After flowering, they are lifted and destroyed (if they are biennials) or given winter protection (if they are half-hardy perennials, such as pelargoniums or chrysanthemums).

How should I prepare the soil for bedding plants?

If the soil is in good condition, fork it over lightly and, to keep the surface level, rake it in several directions; this will also give it a good crumbly structure. Add a general-purpose fertiliser such as Growmore during forking. If the soil is poor or heavy, you will also need to add organic matter, such as well-rotted manure, peat, shredded bark, or compost, before setting out spring bedding plants. Remove all weeds, by hand or by hoeing.

How do I set out bedding plants?

First make sure the soil is fairly moist around the roots of the plants to be moved. If it is not, water and leave for a few hours. Also ensure the soil in the bed or border is neither too wet to work nor too dry. Start by planting the back (or the middle if it is an island bed), and stand on a board laid across it to prevent the soil compacting too much.

Bedding plants in boxes should have their roots ‘teased’ apart by gently and carefully pulling them away from each other; those in clay or plastic pots must have the pots removed (best done with rigid pots by giving them a firm tap on the base with the trowel handle). Bedding plants in peat pots can be planted as they are, but make sure that the pots are quite sodden first. Make a planting hole of the correct depth with the trowel and set the plant in it, making sure the roots are not cramped or twisted. Firm the soil down with the hands or trowel handle. The depth of planting should be to the same depth as the original soil mark on the stem; plant apart to the distance recommended on the seed packet. Hoe carefully among the plants to remove footprints, and then spray them with water. Water regularly, night or morning, until the plants are established and growing strongly.

Can you suggest some half-hardy biennial and perennial plants for my summer bedding scheme?

For summer bedding, easily grown half-hardy biennials, or plants treated as such, include fibrous-rooted begonias (B. semperflorens), sweet william (Dianthus barbatus), and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Useful half-hardy perennials include certain chrysanthemums (especially C. indicum and C. morifolium varieties), various pelargoniums (Pelargonium x hortorum, P. x domesticum, and P. peltatum varieties), and varieties of Carina.

Could you suggest some good half-hardy annuals for brightening up my summer flower beds?

Seed catalogues list a large number of half-hardy annuals from which you should be able to meet your needs. Particularly popular are the many varieties of asters, antirrhinums, Prince of Wales’ feathers (Celosia cristata ‘Pyramidalis’), cosmea (Cosmos), pinks (Dianthus), busy-lizzie (Impatiens), Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica), godetias, lobelias, marigolds, nemesias, tobacco plant (Nicotiana), petunias, salvias, stocks (Matthiola), tagetes, zinnias, and butterfly-flower (Schizanthus).

I have noticed that many summer bedding plants are on sale in the shops in April. Surely this is too early to plant them in the open?

In all except the most sheltered gardens in the country, the answer is ‘yes’. Most summer bedding plants should not be planted out until all danger of frost is past, and this can be as late as the end of May or even early June. It is not advisable to buy such shop plants until you are nearly ready to plant them; otherwise, they will get straggly and root-bound in their containers, even if they are protected against frost and properly hardened off.

What should I do with my bedding geraniums after they have finished flowering in the autumn?

Bedding geraniums (Pelargonium) should be dug up in the autumn and planted in compost in pots or boxes. Keep the plants in a cool, well-lighted, not too warm place, and water them very occasionally to prevent the compost from drying out completely.

How can I increase my half-hardy pelargoniums?

If you have a good stock of healthy plants, the easiest way to increase pelargoniums is by cuttings taken from over-wintered plants in March. With a sharp knife, cut off 75 mm (3 in) long shoot tips just below a node (leaf joint); remove all but the topmost pair of leaves and insert the cuttings to half their depth in small pots of seed compost. Water in the cuttings and keep them in a moderately warm, brightly lit place, such as a window-sill, until they have rooted. When they are growing well, transplant them to larger pots containing a stronger compost. Gradually harden them off before planting them where they are to flower in May.

How can I tell when my cuttings of pelargoniums have rooted?

There are two ways. First, if it is obvious that new top growth is being produced and, second, by very gently pulling the cutting upwards with the fingers; if it moves freely it has not rooted and should be firmed back carefully, but if it remains firm, it has rooted.

My seed catalogues list hybrid geranium (Pelargonium) seeds. Are these easy to grow?

The pelargoniums now listed include some excellent new hybrids. They are easy to raise from seed sown between December and March, but they do require a high germination temperature, about 18-21°C (65-70°F). This means that, to economise on heating costs, you would be well advised to use an electrically heated seed propagator . The techniques for seed sowing, growing-on, and so on are the same as for other seed-raised plants .

As dahlias are half-hardy plants, what should one do with them during the winter?

Dig up the dahlias after flowering, or following the first autumn frost, and cut back the top growth to about 150 mm (6 in). Place the tubers upside down for a few days in a cool place to allow any moisture from the stems to drain away. Then remove all the soil, cut off any diseased or damaged portions, and place the tubers, with their stems upright this time, in a shallow box of dry peat or sand, and keep them in a dry, frost-free place for the winter.

How can I protect my cannas during the winter, and can I increase my stock of them?

Lift the cannas in autumn, dry them for a few days, cut the top growth down to 150 mm (6 in), and remove loose soil; then set them in boxes of slightly moist peat. Store in a frost-free place and keep the peat only just moist

In early spring, place the fleshy roots (rhizomes) in a rich peaty soil in a warm place to start them into growth. As the shoots appear, increase the stock of plants by dividing the rhizomes, so that each piece has a new shoot and some roots. Pot them individually, and keep the temperature at about 13°C (55°F) until April. Gradually harden-off the cannas before planting out in late May.

What do I do with my half-hardy chrysanthemums after they have been used in summer bedding schemes?

Dig up the plants and cut the top growth back to about 150 mm (6 in). Place the chrysanthemum stools (rootstocks) into a box of soil compost and store them in a cool but frost-free place for the winter months. Water the soil occasionally to keep it just moist. Label each stool with the name of the variety if you have mixed them in the boxes.

When and how should my bedding chrysanthemums be propagated?

Start the over-wintered chrysanthemum stools into growth in a warm greenhouse in early spring, or in a cold frame in late spring. This will encourage production of new young shoots.

When these are about 50 mm (2 in) long, cut them off the plant with a very sharp knife, as close to the stool as possible. Remove any leaves at the base of the cuttings, then insert them in boxes of a potting compost, about 50 mm (2 in) apart each way. Firm them in with the fingers and sprinkle them lightly with water. Keep them warm and in a shady place until new growth indicates that the cuttings have rooted. Transplant them to pots or other boxes as they grow larger, and then gradually harden them off for planting out in May.

How can I produce my own half-hardy annual bedding plants for summer?

Sow half-hardy annual seeds in boxes of seed compost in a warm place, such as a greenhouse, propagating unit, or the home, from January to March. When they are large enough to handle they are pricked off (transplanted) into boxes of a stronger soil compost, and kept growing in warm conditions until April. They are then hardened off gradually, until ready for planting out in May.

What is the best way to harden-off half-hardy plants raised from seeds or cuttings?

Half-hardy plants need to be hardened off very slowly from the temperature in which they were raised to the cooler atmosphere in which they are to be grown outdoors. This is best done by gradually reducing the heat in the place where they are started into growth, or by moving them to a cooler place in the greenhouse or in your home.

After a week or two, place them in a cold frame with the light (lid) closed for the first few days; alternatively, use a coldish room in the house. Then open the light of the frame, making sure that the plants do not suffer any chilling draught; if the plants have been raised in the home, stand them outdoors under cloches in a sheltered place during the day, but bring them indoors at night.

Finally leave the plants unprotected, but still in their containers, for 7-10 days before planting them in the ground.

How can I raise spring bedding plants, and when should the work be done?

Suitable plants for spring bedding include forget-me-not (Myosotis), double daisies (Bellis perennis), wallflowers (Cheiranthus), aubrietas, and primroses and polyanthus (Primula), as well as many bulbous plants such as daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocuses, and snowdrops. The double daisies, wallflowers, forget-me-nots, and aubrietas are raised from seed sown in a seed bed in early summer. Primroses and polyanthus are best sown in a heated greenhouse or warm room in late winter or in a cold frame in April or May.

The plants are put into the prepared bed or border in the autumn. The tallest-growing ones should be at the back, and the heights gradually reduced to the lowest-growing plants at the front. Thereafter, of course, you will have to wait for several months before the plants break into flowering colour the following spring.

Can you explain what a seed bed is and how it is prepared?

A seed bed is a piece of ground that is kept solely for raising hardy plants from seed. It should if possible be sited in a sheltered position which gets plenty of light but not too much direct sun. To prepare it, fork the ground over, dig in some humus-forming material such as well-rotted manure, compost, shredded bark, or peat, and add a general-purpose fertiliser. Then tread it down, and finally rake it in at least two directions to break the soil down to a fine crumbly texture, so that the surface has no earth clods or large stones. This preparation is best done when the soil is neither too wet nor too dry but just moist, so that the particles bind together when squeezed.

How do I sow and look after seedlings in a seed bed?

Sow seed in rows 100-150 mm (4-6 in) apart. Put pegs at either end of where the row is to go, tie string tightly to the pegs so that it rests on the surface of the soil, and with the side of a hoe make a very shallow V-shaped drill (furrow) by drawing the hoe backwards, against the string to keep the drill in a straight line. Scatter the seeds very thinly in the drill and rake the soil back over them. Finally put in labels to show what seeds are sown where.

If the soil dries, water it thoroughly using a sprinkler or a watering can with a fine-rose sprinkle head. Remove any weeds to prevent competition with the young plants.

When the seedlings are 50-75 mm (2-3 in) tall they should be thinned and transplanted. Ease the seedlings out of the ground with a hand fork and replant them in well-prepared soil 150-200 mm (6-8 in) apart. The best way to make a hole for the little plants is with a dibber or a hand trowel. Firm in the soil around each plant and water it thoroughly. Keep them watered every morning if the soil gets dry and until the plants are growing strongly again. There is no need to discard any seedlings unless they are diseased or damaged.

Could you describe the method of digging up spring bedding plants and setting them in the bed or border?

Use either a small garden fork or a hand fork to lift (dig up) the plants. Do this on a cool, preferably cloudy day, so that the roots do not dry out and the plants wilt. Move them to their new positions and get them planted as quickly as possible. Make the planting holes with a hand trowel, setting the plants to the intervals recommended on the seed packet and to the same depth as the soil mark visible on the stem. Firm the soil around the roots, and water in. Continue to water as necessary until the plants are established.

I am at present planning a bedding scheme. Do I really need to plot in detail on graph paper exactly what bedding plants and hardy annuals are to be placed where and at what planting distances?

It is certainly wise, if you are an inexperienced gardener, to draw a rough plan of the bed to be sown or planted so that a decision can be made as to what flowers to grow and how many of each type will be needed. It can also help you to create a harmonious colour scheme, and to arrange that when one group of plants is not in flower a neighbouring group is, so ensuring that your bed or border always has a focal point. In addition, if a formal ‘carpet’ effect of bedding plants of mainly low-growing subjects is to be created, any possible monotony can be spotted and relieved by a single or a group of taller-growing ‘dot’ (feature) plants.

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