Prairie Planting: Finding the Missing Pieces in the Puzzle

Often, it is difficult to pin point, the exact, reasons as to why we like or dislike something. It is no secret, that I much admire, the natural or prairie-planting style. The impact of this style of gardening is staggering beautiful, and I just love all of it! Breaking that down, is more difficult. However, as I am keen to incorporate elements of this style into our borders, assessing and prioritising the exact qualities is crucial.

Customarily, prairie-planting necessitates generous space, to achieve those wonderfully intricate, interlacing sways of stupendous colour and texture, that just go on forever. For most gardeners, space is a rare commodity, which is why it is most interesting to see examples of this style, when applied to more limited spaces, such as (regular) herbacious borders. There are some good examples, such as Wisley and the Beth Chatto gardens, although again, the dimensions of those borders are certainly not what one could call, petite. Granted, our Greenhouse borders are long, but they are certainly not wide. Furthermore, the backdrop, is not meandering countryside, but an 8ft brick wall. Walls in gardens are lovely, but they do, as is their purpose, block border continuity which is so very much part and parcel of this gardening style.

The Dutch Wave

One must acknowledge, that there certainly is no intention to just roll over, and let the so called ‘Dutch Wave’, completely invade our garden. As it is a formal border, we intend to continue elements of formal, more composed planting, such as the lavender hedges and usage of shrubs. This is certainly not part of the Oudolf package, and am sure he would find this all rather objectionable! In truth, we are looking for some kind of combination of the New Perennial/Oudolf and the more traditionally British, Gertrude Jekyll, techniques. Even if I so wished, credit for this brainwave cannot be bestowed on the author of this blog. That bright spark, Tom Stuart Smith has already mastered this technique, and he has done so very successfully indeed.

Pensthorpe Millenium Garden 2007
Pensthorpe Millenium Garden 2007
Pensthorpe Millenium Garden 2007
Pensthorpe Millenium Garden July 2007
Pensthorpe Millenium Garden July 2007

Therefore, with the intent to apply some of the ideas of the illustrious Oudolf, into the border, the most valuable elements of the Natural Planting style, for our garden are;

  1. Height
  2. Tough plants
  3. Light, airy, ‘move with the wind’ type, fluffy textures
  4. Rich bold colour block planting

Work continuous to raise the borders’ height, using plants such as; Veronicastrums, Eupatorium, Thalictrum (Elin), Macleaya, Valerian and so forth. They are now pretty established and are starting to show off this valuable quality. Following on to point 2, our plant selection has certainly been dominated by the plant’s toughness and upright growth habits. The sturdier the better is our motto.


In terms of colour, here again, we are denting the New Perennials line of thinking. Surprisingly, according to Oudolf, it is shape that matters, not colour. Yet the impact of his colour scheme, is next to none. For us, colour is dictated by pastels; blocks of light pinks, blues, purples and whites. Recently though, bouts of courage have resulted in the addition of bright magenta/red violet type colours, which has lifted the entire colour scheme enormously. I have yet to strike up the courage to plant a Phlox Paniculata Dusterlohe, described in ‘Planting the Natural Garden’ as having an “Alarmingly brilliant lilac-pink color, that makes the phlox extremely ugly and incomparably beautiful at the same time (..)”. One can understand my hesitation…

Where we are lacking, is point 3, the fluffy, airy quality, which continues to elude us. Probably the most difficult to achieve, even for the masters. Grasses are not appropriate for our more formal setting, so thus far plants such as thalictrums, flat capped umbelifers and fennels (bronze and green) have been used. However, the effect can always be improved. After a long search, Perryhill Nurseries in East Sussex, had what I was looking for; Filipendula Purpurea Elegans and Filipendula Rubra Venusta. Wonderfully fern like leaves, creamy plumes of pink flowers, standing tall and proudly upright.

As per usual, overzealous enthusiasm will have to give way to reality, as it will take them time to grow into their new environment. The full impact will therefore, probably only start to take effect within a year or two. But still, I am delighted to have them.

And who knows, when that times comes, I may be blogging about planting a certain Phlox….

Anyone for an Epicormic trim? The Dallas Factor on the 'new' BBC Gardeners' World

any comments?

Comments: 13

  1. @Allotmentletter I went years ago #mustgoback

  2. you were as they say 'way ahead of the game'… it has been shown on Gardeners World this evening…will definitely be visiting…

  3. Thank you Charlotte. Very keen to look into Sussex Prairies, thank you for the suggestion.

  4. Hi Petra, Love this post! One garden to put on your list is Sussex Prairies near Henfield – an absolute must see for prairie planting. Have just been out in India with the owners who are going to plant a garden at my hospital project there.

  5. I do love this look if you have the space…I planted a small meadow since I had the space and it is lovely though a lot of work…

  6. Not everyone has room or the courage to include ornamental grasses in their flower bed compositions. Thank you for advancing the dialogue on this subject. You have made a significant contribution by offering a realistic compromise.

  7. I honestly think that mimicking this sort of style, the style of nature, is the most challenging. It certainly is for me. I've practiced various gardening styles over the years, but at the moment we're trying to create a somewhat informal native wildflower meadow area. It's difficult to achieve the right balance of plants and aesthetic value, without looking overly contrived, or downright shabby! The examples from Pensthorpe are truly beautiful. Now if I could just translate that to our California natives, I'd be half way there!

  8. Dave… I think Petra should do an organised tour of her garden for us… we could then both take notebook and pen, and come back with all sorts of useful info if what we've seen and read so far is anything to go by! :)Petra… when do you want us to come over? :)

  9. Thank you Julie. Not impertinent at all! I have never seen a Crambe cordifolia in the 'flesh' so to speak, just on tv and in magazines. Lovely plant, and I have certainly considered it. I'd love to see one though, but will do some more research in the meantime.

    • Do be careful of usingCrambe cordifolia – apart from the Cabbage White’s fondness for the leaves (which can be controlled) when it dies down it leaves the most enormous hole that must be planned for. also the leaves are huge so they overlay adjacent plants, inhibiting their ability to ‘close the gap’. Only alternative I found is to have something tall behid, and drop not quite as tall a plant in pots in front etc. But it looks like heaven (and can smell like lingering boiled cabbage).

  10. Very exciting, Petra. I shall be watching closely (with notebook to hand)! I do like Perryhill – there's something wonderfully old fashioned about it. And they just sell plants and not all that tut that so many GC's and nurseries seem to clog themselves up with nowadays.

  11. >Good luck on your plans! I absolutely love that Filipendula.

  12. I love the look of the Filpendula… I do not adore grasses *in my yard* either because of their space requirements and they are so informal. I love them elsewhere. That is a great alternative for this style… At the risk of being impertinent, what about Crambe cordifolia for more fluff?Thanks for sharing your plans, Julie