Several factors - costs, sustainability, changing taste - are pushing some councils away from the seasonal bedding displays towards other styles. This trend has not gone unnoticed by commercial growers.
According to Baginton Nurseries managing director Will Lamb: "There are spending cuts left, right and centre, and (parks departments) are responding to that. Our trade has definitely reduced. They are still taking a proportion of bedding plants for parks, but some of them they are tending to grass over or put in more long-term planting like shrubs. We can source those things for them, but it's not our core business."
While supplying local authorities remains a major part of the West Midlands nursery's business, it is seeing "a gradual slide", he says. "Tendering at the councils has become cut-throat - they're looking for the bottom price (from contractors), whereas the garden centre market is buoyant for us. It's been a tricky start thanks to the weather, but fortunately the Dutch aren't bringing in so much product."
Midlothian's Pentland Plants is a major young plant producer for the amenity sector. Partner David Spray says: "Some local authorities aren't ordering at all, while others have cut maybe 10 per cent. It's the soft option when budgets are tight. It's purely economic - nothing to do with sustainability. They have also lost staff and skills.
"For us it's an irritation rather than a disaster - you just have to go and find other customers. One large authority down south isn't ordering, even though it relies on tourism. But doing it on the cheap will have repercussions. For example, Fife didn't plant any autumn bedding last year, but this year it's reversed that. I think that it will come back."
Fellow young plant producer R Delamore managing director Wayne Eady has also noticed a dip. "Several of our customers have seen their council contracts cut back, particularly on mass planting seed-raised items, but less so on baskets and containers - most of our clients' town centre work seems to be going ahead as normal," he says.
"Several growers have been reluctant to commit early this season and I believe this is as much down to the weather and pressure from the banks as it is due to councils. The demand is only just starting for spring plug plants and we have seen a lot of demand for Begonia over the last week, including for council schemes."
Clearly local authority work is far from drying up. A representative of Pinewood Nurseries in Buckinghamshire says: "We are not a massive supplier to local authorities, but things are going well there - in fact, we have taken up orders."
Porters Horticultural quality assurance manager Sarah Fairhurst adds: "We supply a couple of councils and have heard nothing to the contrary from them, but we have long-term contacts with them."
Much would appear to depend on the individual local authority. London Borough of Bromley assistant director of parks and green space Patrick Phillips says: "We need to move more towards sustainable planting. We have done some. Maybe five per cent of the borough is planted that way - a mixture of shrubs, grasses and even sculpture. But a lot of councils are more advanced than Bromley on this."
He claims it is more social than financial pressures that are behind the trend. "Some people see bedding as a bit old hat and they question the twice-yearly process of procuring, planting and then digging up plants," he explains. "We give away some old bedding plants to friends groups or hospices, but people may say: 'That's my money paying for that.'"
However, in terms of water use, traditional bedding displays still have reasonable sustainability credentials, adds Phillips. "We puddle them in when we plant them but otherwise do a minimal amount of watering. The varieties have changed and they are now more drought-tolerant."
He accepts that cost pressures are likely to have a bearing on councils' decisions on planting styles. "But if you do go down the shrubaceous route, there are the setting up costs. It will cost you more in year one and may take you five years to accumulate any savings," he points out.
Phillips believes there is a balance to be struck between different approaches to amenity planting. "Our surveys show that people like to see bedding displays at entrances to parks, for example," he says. "There will always be a place for them - they herald the arrival of spring or summer."
Over the Thames Estuary, Southend Borough Council, a regular entrant in RHS flower shows, is also diluting its traditional bedding displays with other styles. Parks management officer Ian Brown says: "We are still using 200,000-plus bedding plants a year in the parks and on the seafront. But we are trying to diversify, with dry beds, grass beds and more naturalistic planting. We want to make sure that there's as much interest and variety as possible, both for people and for wildlife.
"They also have to be suitable plants for the location, which as we're quite dry and south-facing, means things like Hottentot figs (Carpobrotus), Agapanthus, Yucca, Genista and Santolina."
The lottery-funded enhancement to the Essex town's seafront brought opportunities to extend this sort of planting, he explains. "And there are other over-mature shrub beds that have had their day, where again we have stepped away from tradition, with things such as grasses that give you movement in the wind."
Unusually, Southend still grows a substantial number of its own plants. "We will never compete with the high-volume bedding producers on price and we do still buy in plants," says Brown. "But the key thing they give us is flexibility."
While some boroughs are grassing over their beds, Southend has recently turned one area of close-mown parkland into a wild flower meadow with paths mown through it. "There was some scepticism initially, but now it's more positive," Brown adds. "One woman told me that it took her back to her childhood."
Not only in Bloom
The RHS's Britain in Bloom once meant simply providing a riot of seasonal colour. But now the competition assesses entries on sustainability and community involvement as well as horticultural excellence.
Scarborough in Yorkshire, a finalist in this year's larger seaside town category, reflects this change of emphasis. The town's Britain in Bloom coordinator Ali Double says: "Attracting visitors is our lifeblood and plant displays are part of that.
"Historic areas like the esplanade we keep bedded, but we have used 'feature beds', two-thirds of which is made up of lush permanent planting like Phormium, with pockets of bedding to provide a burst of colour."
The town's displays have taken Gold Medals four times at Tatton Park Flower Show and winners such as "Only a Heartbeat Away" and "Dinosaur Coast" have been rebuilt in the town.
"The 'Dinosaur Coast' is now in a roundabout by the William Smith Museum of Geology and uses grasses to provide a prehistoric feel," says Double. "Displays can tell a story - they create impact and can become an attraction in themselves but are sustainable too."
Scarborough has also branched out into beds of vegetables, including asparagus and kohlrabi, in public spaces. "We want to encourage people to get growing even if they only have a little space," says Double.
"We've had people round from (fellow Britain in Bloom entrants) Harrogate and Tameside, so we must be doing something that's worth looking at."