Bedding plants are flowers massed together with others in a planting bed to produce the maximum in visual appeal for a particular season or holiday. For example, they may be used to establish a patch of vibrant color in a landscape for the summer, or plants with red, white, and blue flowers may be planted to mark the celebration of Independence Day (U.S.). The term derives from the fact that these plants are ideal for creating quick flower "beds," such as showy flower borders.
Types of Bedding Plants
While bedding plants are most often annuals, other types of plants can serve in the role, as well. Most notably, there are many so-called "tender perennials" that, technically, do not fit the definition of an annual but that are treated as annuals in the North due to their lack of cold-hardiness. Some are borderline cold-hardy, such as Victoria blue salvia (Salvia farinacea 'Victoria Blue').
Others come from parts of the world where the climate is tropical. Thus gardeners habitually refer to impatient Lucy (Impatiens walleriana) flowers as "annuals" because that is how they are used in cold climates, but the Impatiens is actually a tender perennial in the tropical climate to which it is indigenous.
With other flowers, you have a choice: You can grow the hardy-perennial version or the annual version. For example, annual black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) complement the better-known perennial that can survive cold winters. The same is true of poppy plants (Papaver).
With an eye to the five basic elements of landscape design (color, scale, line, form, and texture), a landscape designer or informed gardener skillfully arranges each bedding plant in relation to the accompanying annuals, biennials, perennials, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and trees in a yard.
Bedding plants are typically relatively short plants that bloom for a long time and are packed with flowers. Examples include French marigolds (Tagetes patula), petunias (Petunia x hybrida), snapdragons (Antirrhinum), and wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens). Furthermore, they can often be encouraged to bloom even better with some deadheading on your part. Their compact growth habit and multitude of blooms make them ideal for creating drifts of color, whether outside business establishments to present welcoming landscapes for customers or around the mailboxes of homeowners to send a message to passersby that their yards are well-maintained.
Color in the Yard Without Breaking the Bank
The term, "bedding plants," may also refer not so much to how these specimens are used as to how they are bought. Because many flowers are required to create these impressive drifts of color, the cost is a consideration, assuming that you are landscaping on a budget. Annuals are cheaper than perennials, so that helps keep costs down. But even annuals can be expensive when bought individually. That large plant growing individually in a container may look wonderful, but you will pay extra for it simply because the sellers have invested more time, energy, and money into growing it.
That is why bedding plants are mass-produced by the wholesale greenhouse industry and then marketed at a moderate price to the retail industry (such as your local garden center). Here, they are sold to the gardening public by the cell pack. These "flats" commonly contain six bedding plants. They represent an inexpensive way for lower- and middle-income gardeners to make a colorful splash of flowers in their yards for a few months at a time. An even cheaper route to take is to start your own bedding plants from seed.
Bedding-Plant Ideas by Season
While summertime is prime time for bedding plants in the North, do not think that you are without options for injecting quick, inexpensive color into your landscape during spring and fall. On the first warm days of spring, local garden centers are in the habit of putting their cell packs of pansies (Viola) out for sale. Long-suffering gardeners frustrated by the seemingly unending winter are happy to buy them and plant them in a flower bed alongside spring-flowering bulb plants for an instant color boost.
Pansies are also used as bedding plants for fall, but there are other options for achieving a colorful, yet inexpensive, fall landscape.
Popular bedding plants for summer include:
The geraniums that we use as bedding plants are zonal geraniums (Pelargonium). They are perennials in the tropical lands to which they are native but treated as annuals in the North. The true geranium (in the genus, Geranium) is the cranesbill, but this is a perennial and not commonly used as a bedding plant.
Most of the bedding plants mentioned here are sun plants (wax begonia and impatient Lucy being exceptions), a fact that may leave you craving more choices if you grow a shade garden. Enter the versatile Lobelia erinus. It can be grown in partial shade or full sun. A perennial in zones 10 to 11 (and treated as an annual in the North), do not confuse it with the cold-hardy perennial, Lobelia cardinalis (zones 3 to 9). Lobelia erinus comes in a number of colors, including blue, purple, white, violet, red, and pink.
Most bedding plants are grown for their flowers, but outdoor foliage plants are sometimes used, as well, most notably: