Grow a Bed Head Garden

Trendy "bed head" gardens are casual, effortless —even sexy. See if this fresh garden trend is right for you.

Photo By: Courtesy of Garden Media Group

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: Courtesy of YardApes, Inc., a member of PLANET, the Professional Landcare Network

Photo By: Courtesy of YardApes, Inc., a member of PLANET, the Professional Landcare Network

Photo By: Courtesy of Danilo Maffei, maffei landscape designs, LLC

Photo By: Courtesy of YardApes, Inc., a member of PLANET, the Professional Landcare Network

A Bed Head Garden in Pennsylvania

Landscape designer Danilo Maffei defines a bed head garden as "an imprecise blend of structure, glamour and randomness, like...your mate who rolls out of bed, eyes cranked to one side, but her natural beauty shines through all the same." Key elements include ornamental grasses, natives and drought-tolerant plants. This Pennsylvania garden, designed by Maffei, includes early and mid-season bulbs to keep the garden interesting throughout the growing season, since most of its native grasses will peak in late summer and fall.

Overgrown vs. Bed Head

Bed head gardens are springing up around the country, according to a Garden Media Group report. Most have a slightly overgrown look, but overgrown doesn't mean neglected. A true bed head planting often uses curved paths and beds to lead visitors deeper into the garden, and plants are arranged to grow as they would in nature. If garden decor is used, it's made of raw, natural or reclaimed materials.

Bed Heads with Colorful Flowers

Bed heads may be a variation on the "New American Style" credited in the 1990s to landscape architects Oehme and van Sweden, says Maffei. That style typically uses native flowers in bright colors and masses of ornamental grasses and other foliage for a naturalistic feel.

Grasses Mix with Flowers in Bedhead Design

Although some bed head gardens combine flowers and grasses, don't worry too much about color, Maffei advises. He pairs narrow-leaved plants with broad-leaved ones and vase-shaped plants with those that grow in mounds. "Then toss in a few [plants] that have long, wiry stems that will spray out around them. Don't mass lots of the same plant in one place, mix them up a little."

Pennsylvania Bed Head Garden Entrance

Bed head design "relies on a certain amount of messiness," says Maffei, and "you can tinker with the 'rules' of grooming plants, like leaving dormant foliage or dried seed heads on the plant to extend the season of interest." You'll also want to know the difference between unwanted plants—weeds—and volunteers that come from your originals. "Why take out free plants? Just like trying to pull off the messy look in fashion, it is important to have an eye for what is too much and what is not enough."

Bed Head Garden with Coneflowers

Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and 'Shenandoah' switchgrass (Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah') shine in late summer in this Chester County, Pennsylvania bedhead garden. Designer Danilo Maffei says the sculpture of a bald eagle in the background was carved by a chainsaw artist from a single tree trunk. The look is a "certain balance of fun and formal...that makes [the garden] enjoyable rather than a chore. If you make a mistake you can simply say, 'I meant to do that!'"

Bed Head Backdrop for Lap Pool

This view of a private lap pool illustrates designer Maffei's use of bed head style to set off a water feature. "Chesapeake Japanese holly (Ilex crenata 'Chesapeake') creates an evergreen backdrop for pink bee blossom (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink') behind the whirlpool spa," he says.

Bed Head with Wildflowers

Sweeps of wildflowers and other plants are part of the easy-to-grow, low-maintenance bed head style. These gardens often use native plants that are drought-tolerant, too, enabling gardeners to conserve water, an important consideration in hot, dry climates.

Ornamental Grasses in Bed Head Style

Consider plants that don’t need staking or that look good even if they "flop a little," says landscape architect J. Scott Williams. He uses ornamental grasses like Miscanthus, Molinia ‘Skyracer’ or Pennisetum for structure and maintains them with a yearly cutting; for less work, he recommends cultivars like 'Cosmopolitan' or 'Morning Light'. "For intermediate height, texture and structure, you could add single peonies (they don’t need staking) and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (it's okay to let these plants flop)." If desired, he suggests filling in with "long-blooming plants that spread or self-sow like Phlox paniculata (start with the white ‘David', let it go to seed and you will get a range of pinks in future seedlings), Monarda 'Jacob Klein’ or ‘Marshall’s Delight’, Rudbeckia and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)." Not ready to fully commit to a bed head garden? Try one or two of these plants or features in your existing landscape.

Lap Pool with Bed Head Garden

The bed head garden around this lap pool features "lively plantings of 'Walker's Low' catmint (Nepeta x faassenii 'Walker's Low') in the foreground, with yellow-leaved Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger') and the spent stalks of 'Kobold' blazing star (Liatris spicata 'Kobold')," says landscape designer Danilo Maffei. "Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates fine textured mounds at the pool edge."

Bed Head Design at Longwood Gardens

This bed head design, created by two of landscape designer Maffei's students—Kevin Campbell and Susan Quinn—was part of a student exhibition at Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens. Lantana 'Lucky Yellow' and blue Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) are planted in the foreground with Salvia 'Salsa Purple' behind them. "Blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca') is in the right corner," Maffei notes.

Charming Bed Head Style

While bed head gardens should reflect your personality and needs, "The goal is for the garden to look loose and not fussy, but still somewhat planned." says landscape architect J. Scott Williams. "It is an old English practice to have hard edges in a garden, such as the edge of a path or walk or patio, and to let plants like Nepeta, lavender, Coreopsis, or low ornamental grasses like Pennisetum ‘Hameln’ or ‘Moudry’ overgrow the hard edges to soften them."

Vines in Bed Head Design

Climbing plants play a role in another view of a bed head garden from two of Maffei's students, Kevin Campbell and Susan Quinn. Here, sweet potato vines (Ipomoea lobata) and passionflowers (Passiflora 'Lady Margaret') cling to a structure in the background. "I think this style is appealing," Maffei says, "because the gardener can practice 'benign neglect' in the name of experimentation and see what the outcome might be, or fuss with each and every plant and see how much you can dress it up before it looks ridiculous."