Prairie style at home

Prairie gardens can't be created on a small scale - or can they?

Paul and Pauline McBride of Sussex Prairie Garden - an RHS Partner Garden in West Sussex - think prairie gardens can be created on a small scale, and have created two smaller gardens to show how. We asked Paul to share his tips for success with this increasingly popular planting style.

Tips for prairie planting success

Restrict your palette

'The hardest thing about creating a prairie is discipline,' says Paul. 'Instead of having 200 different plants, choose 20-30.'  Then, plant these in groups of 12-20, rather than the usual 3-5. 'Large numbers of each group make a big impact.'

Go giant

Paul recommends using one or two 'giant' plants to give height and drama.

This might be 2m tall, hogweed-like Peycedanum verticillata, which has dark purply-red leaves, or architectural Eryngium pandenifolium, which has blue, agave-like leaves. Airy, see-through plants are good choices because they have presence without blocking views and light.

Perfect partners

Use spring and summer bulbs in each group to extend the season and ensure successional interest - this could be camassias or alliums in between grasses. 'The grasses make a beautiful foil and add an extra dimension of movement and texture.'

Double up

Another effective design idea is to choose plants of the same colour, but with different forms. Here, the sunny blooms of Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' echo the autumnal hues of Amsonia hubrichtii.

Paul's top five plants for the smaller prairie garden

1. Calamagrostis x acutifolia 'Karl Foerster'

This is getting quite widely available, and for good reason! This is tall but with a great, tight, form. Good for wind movement and drama. Two small groups will give continuity to the smaller garden.

2. Persicaria 'Firedance'

Beautiful lime green leaves, scarlet spire-like flower spikes. I love this because it forms a dense mound of fresh leaves and flowers from July until October. Its strong growth prevents light, thus no weeds!

3. Echinacea Sussex Prairie Seedling

No prairie garden should be without this. Many people have trouble getting Echinacea to survive the winter. This seedling not only survives but self seeds and creates beautiful meadows of white, pink, purple and the occasional orange flowers.

4. Veronicastrum virginicum 'Diana'

An architectural plant with a vase-shaped form. Grows to 1.8m tall with spires of fine white flowers and looks great in winter mantle!

5. Allium 'Summer Beauty'

A lovely little clump-forming, evergreen, pink-flowered plant. No brown tips like so many other alliums.

More tips for prairie success

  • The more preparation you can do, the better. Prepare your soil well with compost to get off to a good start, and remember that prairie plants can take the cold but not waterlogging.
  • Try not to cut back plants until late February or early March, to provide winter habitat and seed for wildlife such as goldfinches.
  • Choose plants that look attractive not just in flower, but also after they have died back. Tall seedheads can look magical in frost.
  • Visit other prairie gardens for ideas to try. Experiment!

Visiting Sussex Prairie Garden

Sussex Prairie Garden is an RHS Partner Garden offering free entry to RHS members (main cardholder) at selected times. More about Sussex Prairie Garden

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