Are bedding annuals sustainable? Andy Sturgeon gives an expert view

Bedding annuals can add color to your garden, but are they a good idea, and are there better alternatives? Award-winning gardener Andy Sturgeon reflects

A large Pink flower border in a country garden
(Image credit: Derek Harris / Alamy Stock Photo)

Are bedding annuals sustainable? A still common practice in many gardens, replacing annual flowering plants in garden beds twice a year adds plenty of instant color where there would otherwise be only shrubs. But is this practice good for the environment – and your wallet – and are there better alternatives?

Garden borders may seem incomplete without the addition of annuals, but award-winning gardener Andy Sturgeon urges gardeners to consider other options instead. Here's why.

Annuals bed flowers garden hardy annuals mixed border

(Image credit: Botany vision / Alamy Stock Photo)

Bedding annuals work out to be expensive

The first reason you may wish to reconsider replacing your bedding annuals every fall and spring is that it will work out much more more expensive than investing in perennials. Andy explains that 'the time and cost of ripping out seasonal displays and replacing them several times of year' is what eventually led to the outlawing of the practice in UK public parks and gardens in the 1980s. 'It was unsustainable in financial terms. Shrub and perennial planting which endures is far easier to look after and even councils are beginning to adopt the large swathes of grasses and perennials which need an annual strim, weed and mulch and nothing more.'

If you're trying to reduce your annual gardening spend and are looking for cheap garden ideas, cutting back on annuals is a very easy way to to so. 

Excessive water use 

watering a newly planted window box planter

(Image credit: Future)

Watering plants is essential to a good-looking garden, 'but there is a question mark over the amount of water required for hanging baskets, pots and extensive bedding schemes,' says Andy. The truth is that tender annuals, whether they're grown in the ground or in a pot, need more water. Particularly if you live in a hot climate where water is becoming a scarce resource, the best drought-tolerant plants may be a better bet.

The plastic pot problem

Andy is very clear on the problem of 'plastic use in the horticultural industry.' Despite all the talk about sustainability, 'at the moment, it has not managed to embrace and adopt recyclable plastics or other materials so buying bedding plants several times a year creates a considerable amount of plastic waste, although I pray that non-recyclable plastic pots and trays will soon become a thing of the past.' Some bedding plants are now sold in compostable pots, but they can be difficult to find. 

Ways to incorporate annuals in your garden sustainably

how to grow zinnias

(Image credit: Future)

All of this isn't to say that Andy advises never to plant annuals in your garden again, although he does think that 'we should drop the concept of bedding', where the idea is 'large empty beds that must be restocked several times a year.' Instead, Andy recommends using annuals sparingly, 'to plug gaps in shrub and perennial schemes with plants like Nigella, Escholtzia, and Ammi visnaga, and once established they don’t need regular watering.' 

For best results, Andy recommends starting off these plants in containers 'if you are going to use them to plug gaps or they won’t withstand the competition from neighboring plants. They will then also self-sow in subsequent years and do your job for you.'

It also isn't necessary to completely ditch container gardening ideas. Andy says that 'a limited number of pots with annuals can be a welcome asset to a garden so certainly have their place.' You can reduce the amount of watering needed by using water-retentive gels, and by choosing low-maintenance annuals like dahlias, zinnias and cosmos. 

In short, enjoy your annuals – but perhaps reconsider how you use them in the garden, switching them from the main event to colorful accents among perennials. 

Anna Cottrell
Anna Cottrell

Anna is a keen urban gardener, with David Austin roses and Japanese acers among her favourite plants. She moved into the world of interiors from academic research in the field of literature and urban space a couple of years ago. She's always been interested in how people make houses into homes, and how our concepts of what's stylish change over time.