Val Bourne on carpet beds with real beauty, such as at Waddesdon

Carpet bedding arouses strong feelings and has done so for over a hundred years or more. The Irish gardener and writer William Robinson (1838-1935), who gardened at Gravetye Manor in Sussex, was a fierce critic at a time when carpet bedding or ‘gardenesque’ was highly popular.

He famously said that carpet bedding had “the lifeless formality of wall-paper or carpet” further adding that it carried “the dead lines of the builder into the garden”.

My first planting ever involved a nod towards that Victorian line and regul-arity. Alternate lobelia and alyssum were planted along a narrow crescent containing 12 different hybrid teas. The roses were all upright and ugly, in a variety of clashing colours, and they all flowered at different times. The blue lobelia was short-lived, although modern ones do last much longer. The white alyssum seeped into the gaps like blobs of sago pudding, dished up by an irate dinner lady. I shudder when I think about it now, but I learnt a lot from those mistakes. Gardening is a learning curve and I still haven’t mastered it and probably never will.

Done well though, carpet bedding can be magnificent. My earliest childhood memory was a floral clock at Southend-on-Sea. Then I moved to Leamington Spa as a teenager where the Jephson Gardens used it to great effect — and still do. It suits the ornate splendour of Waddesdon Manor’s Parterre where the carpet bed is surrounded by blue and yellow annuals. At one time the garden staff raised all the plants themselves behind the now closed plant centre, led by a terrific man called Len Bellis. Len is now retired and the carpet bedding has moved into the computer age. It is plotted on to a programme called Instaplant which determines where each plant should be placed. The whole bed is grown in a series of trays, so a scheme which in the 19th century would take a large team over a week now comes together in just a day.

This year’s design, inspired by a 3rd-century Roman mosaic from Lod in Israel, features different species of fish, marine life and a whale. The real mosaic, which can be seen in the Stables until November 2, contains a wider menagerie of exotic creatures. In all the bedding scheme uses 25,500 plants including 5,000 silvery Antennaria aprica ‘Alba’ and 5,000 equally silvery Helichrysum ‘White Wonder’. The latter is commonly known as the curry plant because when the leaves are bruised it smells of curry. A black grass-like plant, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, adds sooty highlights. A pair of three-dimensional carpet bedding birds guard the aviary. Traditionally, carpet beds were planted with alpine and succulents and then clipped short to give the appearance of pile — hence the name. They looked best viewed from above, from a window, and are often planted on sloping beds.

Designs were usually elaborate, but geometrical, and were marked out on the soil using string and sand before being planted by hand. Carpet beds became a feature of parks and public gardens. They tended to rely on foliage rather than flower, because the schemes were left intact until late-autumn. Last November, the park in Bath, close to the Rugby ground, still contained amusing 3D carpet bedding containing bears. So it’s still alive and well. The RHS Tatton Park Show, held towards the end of every July, is the best place to see bedding displays constructed by various local authorities.

Waddesdon Manor also has two Summer Film Nights on Friday, September 5 (Some Like it Hot), and Saturday, September 6 (Skyfall). Gates open from 6pm with films beginning at 8pm. Tickets cost £12 per person. There’s also a Chilli Festival on September 6 and 7 (10am–5pm).