Loose drifts of ornamental grasses interlocking with patches of tough cottage-garden perennials is the essence of prairie planting, says Adrienne Wild

Prairie garden

Naturalised ‘prairie’ planting remains very much in fashion after more than 30 years, mainly because it is trouble-free and is an attractive alternative to an English cottage border.

It also fits into any garden landscape.

Inspired by the North American grasslands, this style uses mass plantings of ornamental grasses with splashes or dots of vibrant herbaceous perennials. The aim is to create a more restrained, subtle style of garden that looks good all year round.

Once established, prairie planting can be very much left to its own devices, making it virtually no-maintenance – a concept any busy gardener would surely appreciate!

Planting purple blooms in bold swathes running through areas of taller plants makes this type of scheme pollinator-friendly, too, which is very important these days as many of these insects’ natural habitats are in decline.

It’s quite easy to get the look – even on a modest, domestic scale.

Simply start with a framework of grasses such as switch grass or Panicum virgatum, molinia (tufted hair grass) and miscanthus, then fill the gaps in between with perennial plants.

Purists might prefer to use native wild flowers but for greater impact you may prefer more ornamental varieties. Whatever you decide, though, go for plants with single blooms as well as contrasting textures and a stiff habit, so that they will stand out in a sea of billowing grasses.

When the cold, damp weather eventually causes stems to collapse into a soggy heap, it’s time to carry out the annual tidy-up to make way for the imminent new season’s growth.

Once established and properly managed, a prairie scheme will have a life of its own and should outlive the person who planted it!

Create a showstopper

Pick plants with personality that will add character to the scheme and catch the eye from a distance. Alliums are a good choice – they will bloom for weeks and when the flowers eventually fade, flashy seed heads remain to provide winter interest.

✿ Coneflower or echinacea (below) are used a lot to fantastic effect in prairie planting schemes.

Its daisy-like flowers come with petals in a variety of colours, including purple and creamy-white, which surround a high brownish-orange cone.

These tough plants repeat bloom throughout the summer, even when there’s a drought.

✿ Tall and imposing verbascums and also kniphofias (right), which are known as red hot pokers because of their fiery, torch-like flowers, can add height, vibrancy and drama.

They work particularly well when studded among blooms with flat heads, such as achillea and heleniums.

✿ Aster x frikartii  ‘Mönch’ can  also be used to impressive effect in early autumn.

Pierce through great swathes of ornamental grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa, stipa and panicum varieties to add a slash of lavender-blue daisy-like flowers. It’s a good companion for rudbeckia and echinacea.

It’s important you choose plants that are suited to the site – rather than improving the site to suit them – and to cram plants in tight so that they support one another and give no room for weeds to invade.

For maximum impact, restrict your palette to just a few flowering perennials and plant them in large groups rather than the usual threes and fives.

Add one or two large plants to give height and drama and use airy, see-through plants such as Verbena bonariensis to add an air of mystery.

Don’t be tempted to cut back plants in autumn as many will take on a new lease of life as they fade.

Shimmering grasses sway in the slightest breeze and become magical as they glisten in the low winter sunlight, especially when coated with a rind of frost or a light dusting of snow.

Seed heads have architectural qualities too, and will also provide winter fuel for songbirds such as goldfinches.