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Victorian Gardeners Debated Beds or Mixed Borders

Today garden fashion includes both using the same plant in a mass setting but also mixed perennial borders.

That was not always the case.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Two major gardening themes, beds and borders, defined the form and shape of Victorian gardens…Most arbiters of the new, dramatic single-species beds would have avoided [mixed beds] which was scorned as ‘promiscuous’ plantings, quite a damaging judgement at the time.”

In 1888 the journal called  American Agriculturist also discussed the question. In the issue from March of that year appeared an article with the title “Our Flower Garden the Coming Season.” The article said, “The advocates of these two styles of gardening soon engaged in controversy, each advocating his style with vigor. “

Generally annuals were used in beds while perennials made up the major part of a border.  The AA wrote, “This planting in the ‘bedding system’ is for the most part confined to tender or half-hardy plants, and must be expensive, whether one purchases the plants, or propagates himself the many thousands required.  In this method of planting flowers lose all individuality, but help make up a mass of color.” Beds often had an intricate design on the lawn. The bed needed weekly maintenance to keep the color and the height of each plant to preserve the design.

The bedding system used colorful plants like geranium, verbena, lobelia and alternanthera. The American Agriculturist wrote about that style in these words, “In this, plants of low stature are planted close together, so that their flowers produce masses of contrasting or harmonizing colors.”

Each garden style, beds and borders, offered a certain value. The AA article wisely concluded with a recognition of value in each of the two forms of garden fashion. The article said, “As in most controversies, this has resulted in a compromise. Those who most strongly espoused the mixed border, the plants suitable for which are mainly hardy herbaceous perennials, have discovered that these plants may be so disposed as to be very effective, either in the different tints of their foliage, or by planting them so that their flowers will form pleasing effects, and thus secure all the advantages of the ‘bedding system’ in a much more permanent manner. At present, some of the most skilled horticulturists of Europe are giving attention to the grouping of herbaceous perennial plants.”

So it is today we see value in both mass planting and perennial borders.

Here is an example of mass planting of four coleus varieties in the Fuller Gardens in North Hampton, New Hampshire. [below]

Mass planting of coleus in several differnt colors at Fuller Gardens, North Hampton, NH
Mass planting of coleus in several different colors at Fuller Gardens, North Hampton, NH
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