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The New Perennial Movement and Prairie-Style Planting – how to Incorporate Them into Your Garden

Invoke a naturalistic look in your garden with a beautiful mix of perennials and grasses planted in drifts

Houzz Ireland Contributor Patricia Tyrrell is an award winning landscape and garden… More

In the first in a series of articles on planting styles, I will focus on the current fashion in new perennial – or prairie-style – planting and how you can achieve it in your garden. It’s one of the strongest and most fashionable movements in gardening right now – perennial plantings combined with ornamental grasses, planted in large swathes akin to a meadow. Inspired by the flowers of natural prairies, it’s a look full of movement, light and colour. It mimics nature in all its layers of planting, adding extra interest through the seasons. Plants are chosen for their ability to grow well together. Low maintenance is also key, so the perennials chosen should be non-invasive and not in need of staking. Because perennials are fast-growing, this type of planting can be very rewarding in terms of making a quick impact with lots of colour and texture. It can also be applied to gardens big or small.

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Make grasses key
The many varieties of ornamental grasses add immeasurably to this style of planting. Grasses are one of the most common plant types in nature, so they underpin that natural meadowy effect. They play a supporting role through the growing season for colourful perennials, and in the autumn they come into their own with beautiful glowing reds, yellows and golds. They also have a wide variety of striking luminescent flower heads. Most are not fussy about soil conditions and are easy to maintain, just needing cutting back or tidying in the spring before they start into growth again.

See a prairie-style garden in this story about what Capability Brown’s ideas can do for your small garden

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Think big
We all make the mistake of going to the garden centre or nursery and buying one of each plant that catches our eye, but no matter how small your garden, think in multiples. To achieve a prairie-style space, you need to plant sweeps of perennials in broad brushstrokes.

In this garden, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ plays a major role on the autumn stage, flowering until the first frosts, and even after flowering it has lovely seedheads for the winter garden. It contrasts well here with other autumn-flowering plants such as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and Persicaria ‘Firetail’.

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Be repetitive
Whether your garden is big or small, you can adapt this style to work for your space. Repetition is key, with a simple palette that repeats in a rhythmic way or threads along through the planting scheme. Nature rarely dots one of this and one of that, but tends towards abundance, scattering seeds or plants generously in an area.

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Focus on flower shapes
Once you start to look, you realise how different flowers are – not only in colour but also in shape. Some flowers are like spires, such as digitalis and salvia, some are round, such as many of the allium varieties. There are button shapes –knautia and astrantia, for example. There are daisies and umbrellas, and some that are fluffy and frothy. Contrasting these shapes with each other adds interest and variety. The simpler your colour palette, the more you can appreciate these differences in form. Some shapes look good grouped together, others dotted among the planting. If in doubt, always ask yourself how they might look in their natural habitat and take your inspiration from that.

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Plan for all seasons
Layer plants up for seasonal interest: in winter and early spring many perennials and grasses have died back, so make sure you have colour in the early months of the year by planting lots of bulbs. Crocuses, snowdrops, anemones, daffodils and tulips will all pop up one after the other from January until late April, by which time the perennials and grasses will have started to appear and take up where the bulbs left off.

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Follow nature
Nature’s not that neat; plants do not keep to themselves but weave in and out of others, growing up through them and around them – so encourage yours to do the same. The trick is to choose some plants that are very fine stemmed and insubstantial, which will contrast well with solid types such as daisies. Here, echinacea and veronicastrum combine in an elegantly messy way with fennel.

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Add some alliums…
Light grasses, such as Nassella tenuissima, allow bulbs and other perennials to push up between them and even lend support. Here, floating above the other layers, is one of the tallest alliums – Allium ‘Mount Everest’, a bulb planted in the autumn which flowers in June. It lends the planting a distinctive air. Alliums come in lots of different colours, ranging from purple through to blue and white. There are even some yellow ones. Some have giant heads, such as Allium cristophii and Allium schubertii, which add fun and interest to a scheme. Others are small, but add tiny pinpoints of colour when dotted through the grasses. Allium sphaerocephalon is a good example of this type. The larger ones can be expensive, but are a worthwhile addition to the perennial mix.

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…and a shrub or two
Shrubs can also be added to the mix, but less is definitely more. They should have lots to offer in terms of interest, particularly in the foliage. Here, Cotinus ‘Grace’, with its long stems and large purple leaves, fits right in and picks up on the purples of the Verbena bonariensis flowers. Shrubs with good autumn colour, berries or hips also work really well with this style of planting, such as the many euonymus varieties or Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’ because of its relaxed habit of growth.

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Create a winter wonderland
One of the pleasures of opting for prairie-style planting is learning to appreciate the beauty of winter foliage and seedheads. Often augmented by winter frost or snow, they can give a garden a lovely atmosphere and add a sculptural quality. Preserving the seedheads of flowers also provides feeding areas for birds during the cold winter months and nesting spots for insects to hibernate.

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Connect with your surroundings
If you’re lucky enough to live in the countryside, this naturalised planting style works really well with the colours of the landscape around it. It therefore brings a little of the great outdoors into your garden and allows your patch to fit in more softly into its surroundings.

What do you think of this planting style?
Tell us what you love about it in the Comments section.

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