Friday, 17 October 2014

Sussex Prairie Gardens

This blog entry should really have been posted in September, but I confess I was waylaid by pelargonium cake. And the rest, I’m afraid, is history

It was the big daises that did it. My spur-of-the-moment acquisition of a car boot full of jolly flowers (which you can read about 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
One you’ve acquired your ticket at the shop (I’d not realised I was visiting an RHS Partner Garden, so suddenly I had more money to spend on cake), you are free to roam the garden, although there’s a gentle suggestion that you plunge into the borders at the large copper letter ‘P’. It seems as good an idea as any, and so I duly did.

The giant ‘P’ conjures an image of a steam-punked version of Vegas, but then perhaps that’s not entirely inappropriate for a garden based on American-style prarie plants. Whatever you make of the scultpure, I particularly liked the planting here. There’s a particularly pleasing intersection between the curve of the grasses on the right and the arc of the Eupratorium on the left, with an inviting path leading onward through the middle, and the effect of the plant combinations is light and airy, suffering from none of the blockiness that can sometimes sneak in when planting in such quantities.
Percy and Penny
Turning the corner I was pleased to find masses of red bistort Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firedance'. I’m a big persicaria fan, from a small variety like ‘Donald Lowndes’ to something on a much larger scale, as here, although I know many people dislike it due to the leaves supposedly resembling dock. I can’t say that’s something which has ever bothered me. Something that does bother me, however, is the manner in which my brain jumbles up the names of entirely unrelated plants with the same initial letter, often leaving me floundering like an idiot for the correct term, trying to mentally select between Persicaria and Pennisetum (on particularly bad days, Panicum and  Penstemon will get thrown into the mental soup). Perhaps it doesn't help that these are two plants I particularly admire, so it’s nice to see them both in combination here, deep rose pink spires of the bistort rising up behind the wafty flowers of the fountain grass.

These Veronicastrums are another striking plant which I meet fairly early on during my visit. The flowers have just about gone over by the end of September, but they still made for an impressive sight throughout the gardens.

I emerged briefly onto one of the wide grass paths between the borders to be presented with a view of Gaura and Verbena bonariensis. These produce an enchanting and airy combination at a height of about three feet above ground. Sadly closer to the base, they’re rather less attractive, and could do with something less lofty in front to hide the bare ankles.

I’ve clearly missed the best time of year for Allium 'Summer Beauty', seen at the front of this combination, but while the round, lilac flower heads have gone to seed, the plant still performs well throughout late summer and early autumn. Yet another for the wish list. At the top left of this picture behind the white bench, fabulously airy screen dotted with pretty pink marsh-mallow flowers is created by Althaea cannabina, the hemp-leaved hollyhock.

Somewhere in the borders; lost, but loving it

By this time, I was getting decidedly lost within the borders, but rather enjoying the experience.

The tall plant on the right caught my eye with its fantastic dayglo pink and lime green colour scheme. Enquiring as to its identity led to one of the more embarrassing moments of the week – when Pauline told me it was Phytolaccca americana, I found it necessary to ask where it was from. The clue, of course, in the name.

Seed heads of American pokeweed, Phytolacca americana
It’s highly toxic to humans and animals, a fact which, for some reason, didn't surprise me in the least. It would look grand alongside Ricinis communis – perhaps they could form the backbone of a poison border.

Erigeron giganteum rising out of a foaming sea of Sedum 
The beautiful, cherry red Sedum matrona at the base of Erigeron giganteum, far larger than the species most of us are used to finding in our garden paths (E. karvinskianus).

A mop head of feathery Miscanthus over a jostling crowd of Echinacea

Yellow is a colour which I always find challenging in the garden – there are certain shades I find unappealing. I can’t stand most daffodils, although I’m considering something like Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' for next year. I’ve even had  a small patch of Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivanti 'Goldsturm' for many years now – although I think this cascading river of orangey yellow here is pushing me to my absolute limit.

I always find it interesting, where possible, to wander away from the garden some distance and look back, just to see how it lies on the land. Here, there’s no escaping the notion that this garden offers a good-natured two fingers up to the landscape, a colourful merry-go-round dropped from space, or perhaps a flying saucer, crash landed in the countryside. Oddly, the cutting garden section which you walk through before reaching the entrance (pictured at the beginning of this post) seems to nestle more comfortably in its space than the main garden.

Parky in places?
There’s also something about the design – with its wide, curving grass paths – which make the place feel less like a garden and more like an attractively laid out public park, where borders are planted for the education of the gardening visitor, and the visual delight of the less horticulturally interested. Perhaps part of this is due to the physical disconnect between the garden and the house, which you can’t see from the garden. As a visitor, I find I’m most at home when in and amongst the plants on the narrow winding paths. Slightly unsettled by all this, I plunge back in. 

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.