Common or garden

Over a century of expertise informs the floral displays we take for granted in our parks, says David Revell. Photographs by Matthew Andrews
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Embossed bedding, jewel bedding, tapestry bedding, mosaic bedding, picture bedding and zoomorphic bedding are all names used at one time or another to describe the elaborate horticultural displays found in parks and on seafronts. "Carpet bedding" is what gardeners have settled on, and genteel Eastbourne, where manicured beds punctuate the terraces of Victorian hotels, is its natural home. In Eastbourne, I once saw a 10- ft high, floral lighthouse modelled on Beachy Head, which was topped by a revolving light.

To make these displays requires a slope or mound, then patience and ingenuity, a supple back, and the wherewithal to plant anywhere up to 30,000 foliage plants and succulents with names like Echevaria Excelsior, Sedum Glauca and Alternanthera. The succulents define the shapes (often diamonds, triangles or semicircles), which the low-growing plants fill in, as though colouring by numbers.

Flower bedding was a Victorian craze, a means of celebrating nature and colour amidst the polluted atmosphere of the Industrial Revolution, although the Gardeners' Chronicle of 1868 was censorious: "Gay and glittering a flower garden in its highest state of perfection should, indeed, be, but it need not, it ought not, to degenerate into a mere chromatoscope."

The more creative gardeners were undeterred. Spurred on by the discovery of new plant species on hunting expeditions in South Africa and South America, they competed to produce flags, medallions, heraldic symbols and representations of wildlife. A full-size piano appeared in a Bradford park. There were also crowns, flights of stairs and floral clocks - the first, in Edinburgh, had a fully-working mechanism and a cuckoo sound produced by organ pipes.

Today, there's less ambition, and less money. Park gardeners now commonly celebrate charities, or advertise local businesses and attractions. But the procedures are the same. The soil is levelled and marked with string into foot squares. Sand fills the outlines of the scale drawing, to be replaced by the young plants, which must be well watered initially and then continually clipped with sheep shears to retain shape. A ladder is suspended to get at the middle bits.

Carpet bedding can seem like a rather vulgar special effect, or grand finale, in the repertoire of the public garden. But it is wonderfully English. It demonstrates extravagant craftsmanship, and raises a smile when you're stuck in the centre of Croydon. Every park, garden, roundabout and grassy verge should have one

If you have photographs of carpet beds or or any information and would like to contribute to a book on the art of carpet bedding, please write to David Revell, c/o LewisRevell 35 Fournier Street London E1 6QE

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