Saturday, April 19, 2014

Island Beds and Bressingham Gardens

I've been researching about island beds as I plan to make my own ones filled with flowering trees, shrubs, evergreens and bulbs, and I became interested in the history of these freestanding beds. As a book-aholic with a large collection of garden books, I first looked on to see if any books had been published about island beds, and surprisingly, found only one:

"Perennials in Island Beds," written by Alan Bloom and published in 1977, is practically a dinosaur amongst garden books. It has no color photos inside, just a middle section of 16 black-and-white photos. It's a very short book of fewer than 100 pages -- and small pages at that, barely larger than a trade paperback.

But it was fascinating to read, and I suspect it will one day be of value to garden historians. Alan Bloom (1906-2005), the son of a market gardener, was a leading nurseryman in eastern England from 1926 until his death. He bought a small Georgian house and estate named Bressingham after the second world war, where he (and his son, Adrian Bloom) continued his work in developing hardy perennials. His company eventually became known as Blooms of Bressingham, and was responsible for introducing many well-known cultivars including Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Phlox ‘Eva Cullum’ and Geranium ‘Rozanne’.

He also may have discovered (and certainly popularized) the idea of planting perennials in island-shaped garden beds, in England and here in the US. This book tells the story of how he came to think of planting in this way: Tiring of staking so many of his perennial flowers in his borders, he noticed that the plants that he grew in open nursery beds didn't grow as tall as in borders and had sturdier stems, requiring far less staking, and he theorized that a wall, hedge or fence backing a border provided protection from wind that resulted in floppier, taller stems.

In 1953, he designed some experimental and ornamental demonstration beds in his grass yard at Bressingham. These worked so well that a few years later he made more island beds in an adjacent 6-acre field, called "The Dell," for a total of 50 beds containing more than 5,000 plant species. Son Adrian Bloom added another area in 1967 named "Foggy Bottom," showcasing conifers, heathers, trees and shrubs. There are now more than 8,000 species in the gardens.

Here are a few beautiful modern photos (from Flickr, taken by Nick, Puritani35):

The original beds laid out next to Bressingham Hall by Alan Bloom in 1953.  The plants have been changed around many times, of course.

The breathtakingly beautiful Dell Garden at Bressingham. The mix of evergreens, deciduous trees and shrubs, and perennials makes this resemble a paradise on earth. Too beautiful to describe.

More Dell Garden. So lovely.

Here is a greatly enjoyable 7-minute tour of the gardens given by Adrian Bloom, and this brief History of the Gardens is interesting. When/if I ever get to British shores, I will certainly make a point of visiting Bressingham gardens.

But back to the idea of island beds in general: Alan Bloom may indeed have been the one to come up with the idea of planting perennial plants in freestanding, curved, irregularly-shaped island beds, but the Victorians had planted in island beds a century earlier -- although the shapes were mostly ovals or symmetrical crescents. They often planted tender bedding annuals in their island beds, which required the labor of numerous gardeners.

Annuals in a series of island beds, from "Town Planting And The Trees, Shrubs, Herbaceous And Other Plants That Are Best Adapted For  Resisting Smoke", by Angus D. Webster (1910) from

Another island bed with succulent plants, same source. This island bed is raised into a mound, for better viewing.
Island beds likely fell out of favor when formal Victorian bedding was renounced in favor of the more "natural" hardy perennial borders advocated by William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll in the late 19th century. They probably associated the freestanding beds with annual bedding schemes, so island beds were out of fashion during the growth of gardening popularity in the Arts & Crafts period and pre-WWII era.

It wasn't until the postwar period that Alan Bloom rediscovered the idea of planting in freestanding island beds, and he used perennials, shrubs and trees in them, not just annual bedding plants. And his beds followed the lay of the land, resulting in irregularly-shaped beds, which were perhaps also inspired by the kidney shapes in modern design that Thomas Church had incorporated into his pool designs in the 1940s, as well as Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx' designs of the midcentury. These had in turn been influenced by the organic shapes used in modern art in the 1930s.

Thomas Church designed this famous kidney-shaped pool in 1948 for a private house in Sonoma, CA.
(picasaweb, Michelle)

It seems strange that irregularly-shaped island beds, which are so common now, are of such recent origin, but I guess many things seem inevitable after they are discovered. As an admirer of Arts & Crafts-style English gardens, I have preferred geometric shapes until now, but I think trees and shrubs might look better in these organic-shaped beds than in formal ones, and I will undoubtedly begin to appreciate perennials in island beds more now as well. Bressingham gardens has certainly demonstrated how beautiful island beds can be.


  1. Alan Bloom was an eccentric character but a great plants man. He collected steam engines and used to take people on rides through the grounds at Bressingham. He was a striking figure with his shoulder length hair and ear rings. His dell garden was beautiful and he introduced some wonderful perennials which have stood the test of time. His book Hardy Perennials is also worth seeking out.

    1. Thanks for reading, Chloris. Did you ever meet Alan Bloom or visit Bressingham? I'm sure he must have been fascinating, as many original thinkers are; and his gardens look so beautiful in photos. And I'll check out his other book. Thanks! -Beth

  2. I enjoyed this trip through the Bloom garden. I am sure I have met Adrian Bloom at some garden event in the past. And I love the Blooms of Bressingham label. Thanks so much for filling in the history of these gardens and the Blooms as well.

    1. Thanks for visiting, Thomas. I'm so glad you enjoyed my post, as I enjoyed yours. These influences on today's garden styles are endlessly fascinating. -Beth