Prairie Gardens & the New Perennial Movement
In nature, a prairie is an undulating ecosystem of savanna, grassland and shrubs that all require similar soil conditions and a dry, temperate climate. Once roamed by herds of grazing buffalo, the Great Plains of Montana and Wyoming in Midwest USA are nature’s very own prairie. Although much of their vast area is now used for cattle ranching and growing wheat and corn.
On a much smaller scale, a prairie garden is similarly planted with grasses and perennial plants that are easy to establish and are pretty-much maintenance free (relatively speaking!) after an initial period of attention. They are inspired by these naturally occurring habitats and are widely seen as part of the New Perennial Movement in garden design style.
The New Perennial Movement arose in the 1980s from a desire to reconnect with nature. At its roots is a naturalistic planting design which mimics naturally occurring rhythms and patterns. This natural flowing aesthetic is created by interwoven layers of grasses and perennials planted using vast drifts of repeating colours and plant varieties.
While beds of grasses and seed heads may sound unexciting, prairie landscapers bring together a variety of textures, heights and colours to create a pleasing natural garden that delivers movement in the breeze as well as attracting pollinators. Other advantages of prairie gardens include lower ongoing maintenance than traditional gardens as they require less watering, pesticides and fertilizers. Once established, the prairie habitat will sustain many insects, butterflies and birds providing a boost for the local ecology.
Some of the best prairie gardens in England can be found at Trentham Gardens and at the Sussex Prairie Garden, the largest prairie garden in the United Kingdom. Other examples can be seen at the Merton Borders in the Oxford Botanic Gardens and in London Olympic Park. While it is true that prairie gardens produce their greatest effect in larger spaces, clever design (or trial and error) can see them adapted to smaller gardens. The only problem here is the discipline required to keep to a limited number of plant varieties!
Landscape gardeners who are noted for their pioneering prairie garden plantings include Piet Oudolf. His ‘New Perennial Movement’ of prairie-style plantings can be seen in many public parks including New York’s Battery Park and the High Line Linear Park. Other prairie garden specialists include Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough and Paul and Pauline McBride who are the creators and owners of Sussex Prairie Garden.
While, the New Perennial Movement started fairly synonymously with prairie gardens and meadows, the movement is now generally being applied to encompass any naturalistic planting scheme with a focus on mimicking nature and ecological principles. New twists include Mediterranean or South African influenced planting, such as the African Meadow on display at RHS Wisley, along with woodland and wetlands-based gardens.