Prairie planting is easy and makes an instant impact in any outdoor space.
Prairie planting is a simple concept. You mix bold blocks of perennials and grasses to create a sense of wide open spaces. Inspired by North American landscapes, it’s a more manageable equivalent of a British wildflower meadow.
The prairie planting style has become increasingly popular with gardeners and designers. The reason is that it’s both colourful and dynamic. It also provides a long period of interest, and will bring birds, bees and butterflies flocking to your garden. And once the plants are established, prairie planting is easy to maintain. What’s more, you can achieve the look even in a small space.
Prairie planting: everything you need to know
Prairie plants need an open, sunny spot with well-drained soil. Use around two-thirds of towering perennials to one- third grasses and limit your palette to create swathes of form and colour. Plant closely in blocks or drifts and repeat to give a sense of rhythm. For a small bed, plant in groups of three, five or seven, with large plants at the back. First, lay out your plants in their pots so you can play with positioning. Once planted, fill any gaps with spring or summer-flowering bulbs, annuals and ground cover plants.
Typical prairie perennials include daisy types such as Rudbeckia Goldturm, with bright yellow flowers; the rich red Helenium Moerheim beauty, or copper red Indian Summer. You can also create interest with different flower shapes and forms, such as tall feathery fennel, the rounded spikes of globe thistle (echinops) and the flat top heads of yarrow (achillea). Coneflowers (Echinacea) are also must-haves. Try Rubinglow, a luscious pink with a reddish-brown centre that wows when planted next to blues and silvers. For a blue haze, plant violet blue asters like Little Carlow, or the azure spiky sage, Salvia Blue Enigma.
Grasses are vital to successful prairie planting, as they add height, texture and movement. For a tall screen, use Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’. Its green stems fade to buff. Or try Miscanthus sinensis, with its tassel-like flowers. For the front of a border, plant the native purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea). It has a semi-transparent effect that filters the view to plants behind it.
Caring for your prairie
Until the plants are established, you’ll need to weed and mulch well. However, by planting densely (about nine plants per square metre), the roots and stems will eventually weave together and crowd out weeds.
The plants will flower till the frosts come and many have beautiful seed heads that provide food for hungry birds. They also make good habitats for overwintering insects. In February, you can cut and compost the stems.
Prairie planting may be a new approach for your garden, but it’s well worth the effort. Then sit back and enjoy the whisper of grasses, and a beautiful show of form and colour all year round.