How to make your garden like a prairie

Grasses bring a different element to planting in the garden, writes Olive Ryan
How to make your garden like a prairie

Prairie style planting implemented by Piet Oudolf at Hampton Court Flower Show in London a few years ago.

THE garden is revived somewhat since the weather broke and it has rained aplenty over the last week or two, rehydrating thirsty plants.

It takes some time for the rain to soak into the ground and for the soil to become saturated once more, it had become so dry. The roots of trees, shrubs, herbaceous and grass are all breathing a sigh of relief as things were getting serious!

Looking around the garden, it is interesting to notice what plants managed the best during the drought and are still managing to look good in spite of the lack of water.

Without a doubt, ornamental grasses like Miscanthus, Calamagrostis, Panicum, Pennisetum, Carex and Cortaderia all did well without being watered and are standing proud and looking good as we head into the autumn.

These plants are generally not fussy and will grow in relatively poor soils, but they do require full sun to thrive and the taller ones will benefit from being planted in a sheltered spot, as the wind will topple flowers and foliage in more exposed locations.

This type of planting comes into its own in the autumn time, with the low sunlight shining through the flower heads of these elegant additions, swaying gently in the breeze, bringing movement into the garden.

The texture of grasses brings a different element to planting and can create a desire to reach out and touch the leaves, flowers and seed heads.

Ornamental grasses can be a good addition to a mixed border, extending the interest through the winter months with the dead foliage of many grasses providing muted colour until it is cut down to the ground in the springtime.

The dried foliage can be surprisingly attractive and a good habitat and source of shelter and food for insects and wildlife over the winter months.

A prairie style of planting has become increasingly popular over the last few year, with landscape architects like Oehme Van Sweden designing gardens for celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, and popularizing the style in America.

Piet Oudolf is a dutch designer that has designed many high profile gardens throughout Europe and America, also incorporating a prairie style of planting.

The prairie style is made up largely of different types of grasses with some drifts of flowering perennial woven through to provide some colour.

The planting is usually done on a pretty large scale, imitating the natural grassland prairies that exist in North America. The bigger the scale, the more effective the planting, but this can also be implemented on a smaller scale in our own gardens.

Gravetye manor planting.
Gravetye manor planting.

The picture above shows a planting scheme at Gravetye Manor, where Stipa tenuissima is used to wonderful effect to carry the eye through the sloped area, giving continuity, repetition and rhythm to the planted slope, which makes it very pleasing to the viewer. The picture was taken during the summer with the grasses becoming dramatically bleached in the sun and picking up golden hues of the Euphorbia and Argyranthemum, helping again to unify the planting scheme.

Taller grasses are used towards the back, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ giving height and movement and the repetition carrying the eye through the planting.

Most of the grasses mentioned above stand well over the winter months, providing some interest and structure in the garden. 

The foliage can be cut down to the ground in the spring and any evergreen grasses can be ‘combed through’ to remove any dead and unsightly older leaves to make way for new growth in the springtime.

 Stipa-tenuissima - see Plant of the Week.
Stipa-tenuissima - see Plant of the Week.

It is best to divide grasses in the spring rather than autumn as they can sit and rot in the ground during our usually wet winter if divided at this time of year. They generally do not require feeding as excessive nitrogen can create too much soft and floppy looking foliage - they prefer a low nutrient soil.

We can also try to plan better for drier spells in the future by incorporating as much organic matter into the soil as possible, so that there is a reserve of moisture for roots to tap into when drought conditions prevail.

This can be in the form of turning green manures into the soil, using farmyard manure, leaf mould, well rotted horse manure, spent mushroom compost or homemade compost.

In addition to this, mulching the surface of the soil will help to prevent evaporation from this area.

 Ideally, it is best to have the surface of the soil covered with vegetation, but in a newly planted area mulch will help conserve moisture and suppress weed growth until plants become established.

All of this work is not only good for the soil and plants growing in it, it will cut down on weeding throughout the year - and this is good news for gardeners.

Plant of the Week

This week, it has to be a grass, and Stipa tenuissima (right) or Mexican feather grass, is the chosen one.

This is a deciduous perennial grass that dries out and becomes a washed out white/brown colour for the winter months until it is cut back in the springtime and re-emerges a bright green with whispy flower heads that give movement and texture to a planting scheme.

It is a small grass, getting to about 45cm in height with a similar spread.

Best planted in full sun in a free- draining soil and cut back hard in late spring, before the new growth emerges from the base.

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