How to Stop Using Bedding Annuals in City Landscapes

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Help! My town really could use some examples of alternatives to bedding annuals for its civic landscapes, alternatives that are more sustainable and better-looking to the modern eye.

(I know, I know. Whenever something is criticized for its low aesthetic appeal – looking ugly – some are offended. So IS there a way to say bedding annuals are OUT without insulting people who still love them? This planting has won awards!)

Above and below are the beds on either side of the front entrance to our municipal building: annuals, including coleus, in full sun, with prominent irrigation tubing. Weirdly combined with perennials and shrubs.

UPDATE: As requested, I’ve added these photos taken 8/26. No improvement.

In prominent spots like all of these, the plantings say to the community who we are, especially how “green” we are, and also demonstrate plants and designs for residents to use at home. So they matter. More than, say, corporate landscapes.

Another full-sun spot, this one in front of the city museum.

UPDATE: As requested, above is a more recent photo – taken 8/26/18 – filled in mostly with weeds.

The island along the main street into town is a mixed bag, with this area looking particularly silly.

This section looks better, particularly in late summer when the crepe myrtles and Sedums put on their show. Still gotta have irrigation for those annuals.

Another example – perennial grasses with annuals and lots of prominent tubing.

I’ve asked experts I know in person and on Facebook for examples of more updated and eco-friendly civic landscapes, but most suggestions have been from the arid West.

So my search continues for examples of plantings around civic buildings that are sustainable and attractive enough to ease the transition from color-blasted annuals to something new. Got ideas?

One example (above) is closeby – the gardens on the other three sides of the municipal building shown at the top of this post. Looking great here are shrubs, flowering perennials (especially our state flower Rudbeckia) and good old Liriope as the weed- and erosion-preventing groundcover.

The bedding islands in the adjacent parking lot is also smartly planted with plants that thrive there with almost no care – crepe myrtles, daylilies, Japanese Anemone and again, the workhorse Liriope.

New American Garden? Post-Wild Gardens?

Two sources of inspiration have come to mind, both local to us in the DC area:

  • The New American style of gardens made famous by Oehme Van Sweden and others, using sweeps of grasses and flowering perennials.
  • A more recent style of ecology-based plantings promoted by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West in their book Planting in a Post-Wild World, which the Washington Post called the “garden of the future.” Their ideas are being brought to life by their design firm (with Melissa Rainer). Their work was recently recommended to me by Scott Aker, head of gardens at the National Arboretum.

Both of these garden styles can be beautiful, no doubt, but they’d need to also be easy to maintain with crews that are schooled in mow-and-blow tasks with power equipment. Or at least using maintenance techniques that are easily learned.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Susan, here’s an example of a local Civic building (I’m in Minneapolis). I wouldn’t call it awe inspiring, but it looks nice, is water wise, and uses natives. It looks low maintenance to me, as compared to the more potentially more complex plantings of the garden designers you mentioned.

  2. Urgh. Yeah, I am coming from a western arid perspective as well, but people do the same out here (beats head against wall)! First suggestion is Salvias; so much to choose from in this family! Also, Teucriums, Phlomis, Artemisia, Helichrysum are a few. In terms of maintenance; sometimes it takes education and an adjustment of expectations on both sides; the client and the gardener. Even if the gardener knows the proper thing to do with a plant, like cutting it way back in September, they may not do so, because they are used to clients who freak out when that is done. Or, the gardener does not know the proper thing, so the plant looks ugly and the client calls to pull it out because it looks bad, etc.

  3. I thought Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s company did some bed planting in Camden Yards in Baltimore.
    That might have some useful ideas. Can’t remember if I saw it in their Post-Wild book or maybe on their or Thomas Rainer’s web site? He also has his own Pinterest boards that might give you some plant choices? Just a thought.

  4. Love the garden in the link Jenn K provided. Also am a big fan of Rainer and West’s book and his plant suggestions. Since I live in the south (dry & hot), anything I suggested would be off. The author, Skyler, of https://tanglycottage.wordpress.com/ maintains a ton of public beds. Yes, the gardens she maintains are located on the southwest Washington coast, but surely some plants would translate to your area.–Plants that don’t need pampering and can stand up to public scrutiny.

  5. Maybe it is more a question of better or different choices of annuals? Maybe have a discussion with whomever is designing/planning the cities beds? While I love perennials, there should be some space for annuals too, IMO. And something is better than nothing, or worse yet, trash and butts.

  6. The darn things look like someone took out a tape measure and and precisely marked out where each plant would go and they look more like a chess board than a garden. Maybe a few plants that will misbehave and not stay in their space. They plant the dwarf types of plants so they never grow together. All the joy of an exuberant garden is taken out of them. How about plants of different heights, diameters and let let them blend into one another. And why do the colors all seem to clash. I like color, but so many of these beds look unnatural and like they bought the plants according to how many they needed, not how they would look together.

    • I agree. I wonder if part of the issues isn’t the ‘soldiers’ lined up in a row… Also, it would be interesting to see what the beds look like now, since I assume the pictures are showing when the plants were first plants, and the plants have grown together now.

  7. Fort Wayne has a real mix of plants these days, which I assume is due to an outstanding designer somewhere in the bowels of the city greenhouse. Some areas and parks sport primarily annual bedding plants (like the outside area of the botanical conservatory – ?!?) Other areas, however, incorporate a mix of perennials and natives. Even the centers of roundabouts and the new medians now have grasses, shrubs, and trees. It’s wonderful to see.

  8. It’s a shame to see bedding-out plants so misused, since in the right setting they can be great. I but one interesting coleus early in the season, probably about $5, and immediately make cuttings. By late May I’ll have a dozen or more strapping plants to give glamor and continuity to big terrace pots. In my semi-shade, begonias work well too.

    In public settings like yours, dramatic and tough grasses (in the style of Oehme & van Sweded, vaguely) do a great job, rarely need water after a year of settling in, and need cutting back only once a year. A few repeat-flowering daylilies for color, and you’re set. Shrubs with colored foliage are good too, ninebark etc. Too big for some settings, but great for contrast with grasses in various greens. And there’s a world of smaller hydrangeas with 3 season interest. (Though I’d choose varieties that bloom on new wood; nobody’s going to convince municipal workers not to prune.)

  9. UPDATE: Responding to a comment, I’ve added photos taken yesterday of 2 of these landscapes, to see if by late summer the plants had filled in. The most prominent one in front of our municipal building looks the same. The garden in front of our museum actually looks worse. Susan

  10. Susan, the Plant NOVA Natives campaign is also trying to compile examples of sustainable public landscaping. Our Outreach Coordinator, Margaret Fisher, has put together a Google Drive file of shots around Northern Virginia here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1-CUOdsuVOZWYAE97npFihjKFeP8v7l2_

    If you aren’t familiar with the campaign, see our website: http://www.plantnovanatives.org. You might even like to describe the campaign sometime in a Rant. We began about four years ago with a federal grant from NOAA to use social media to encourage use of native plants, and have sold or given away over 10,000 full color guides to locally native plants. The guide can be found as a pdf on the website. There’s an app and a host of other resource materials there as well. joannerhutton@gmail.com

  11. To me, this isn’t about plant selection, but education in maintenance and management. There are tons of more ecologically sustainable plant options, right? But the people caring for these areas have to know how to preserve and manage these spaces. I’ve been thinking about a new rail trail in our town that is lined on both sides with invasive plants. How does one combine community engagement, with education and conservation, in the parks department? All the pieces are there….

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