here) had started a minor obsession, and I spent much of September day-dreaming about late season perennials. It’s one thing to start small, buying a few plants of a handful of varieties – this can have quite a transformative effect on a garden in late summer, and one of the most exciting aspects about these plants is that many welcome division, so that in time you can increase your stock, fill your borders and still probably have enough to give away to friends. So I’ve nothing whatsoever against starting small; I can be patient when it comes to my own garden. But that didn’t mean I was without a hankering to see what someone else had had the opportunity to do with perennial planting en masse – great swathes of identical flowers, interwoven with drifts of complementary forms and textures, with generous clumps of ornamental grasses for good measure. Such was the picture in my head, and so I took myself off to Sussex Prairie Gardens, about an hours drive away.
This is the six acre garden created by Paul and Pauline McBride, open to the public throughout the summer. In 2008, around 30,000 plants (of 600 varieties) were planted into curved borders laid out in a design inspired by the spiral pattern of a nautilus shell, with a central spine of neatly clipped, undulating hornbeam hedges. Aside from this single concession to formality, planting is in a naturalistic style, eschewing rigid regularity and mimicking natural plant communities. The borders are deep, wound through with inviting bark paths which encourage the visitor to experience the plants at a more intimate level, rather than standing at a distance and viewing a display, as in a museum. It’s a refreshingly engaging approach with a slight fairytale aspect to it; tall plants towering over you, paths, seating areas and pieces of sculpture emerging unexpectedly round corners – a ‘Secret Garden’ kind of feel to it, but with a very different palette of plants.
Pulling off the main road into a perfectly pleasant but ordinary field where you can park your car, and surrounded by the lush green Sussex countryside, it seems difficult to picture anything other than the traditional English patchwork of pastoral and arable land existing in this place. But after only a few steps you find yourself deep within rich, multi-layered planting – at once both alien and somehow oddly in keeping with the backdrop of tall oak trees. Quite something to behold, particularly as at this stage you’ve not even got to the entrance.
|Layer upon layer, from Echinacea in the foreground to Eupatorium at the back|
|Percy and Penny|
|Somewhere in the borders; lost, but loving it|
By this time, I was getting decidedly lost within the borders, but rather enjoying the experience.
|Seed heads of American pokeweed, Phytolacca americana|
|Erigeron giganteum rising out of a foaming sea of Sedum|
|A mop head of feathery Miscanthus over a jostling crowd of Echinacea|
|Parky in places?|
On the drive back to Kent, I wonder how my experience of the garden met my initial expectations. While I was admittedly hoping for big daisies, the word ‘prairie’ had conjured in my mind wide stretches of grasses in subltley complementary tones, a gentle breeze rippling through a monochrome tapestry of different forms and textures backlit in the low September sun. Perhaps the odd spot of colour from a patch of stonecrops, sneeze weeds and cone flowers, which would somehow emphasise the patchwork of drabs. What I actually found is clearly an articulation of the new perennial movement – unsurprising when you consider that the creators of the garden worked with Piet Oudolf on a garden in Luxembourg in 2001. If you come expecting this, you’re unlikely to be disappointed. In my current frame of mind, this riotously colourful sweet shop is just what I was craving at the tail end of summer. It’s a fantastic resource for observing the effect of mass planting of different varieties, and one I’m fortunate to have so close to home.