Sussex Prairie Garden review: Meadows, Prairies and Downs by Kate Buxton: a review of the Sussex Prairies Garden

August 30, 2011

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

The topic of contemporary naturalistic planting design is a fascinating topic: what is the relationship between ‘Dutch Wave’ gardens, the ‘New American Garden Style’, wildflower meadows, quasi arable fields, prairie gardens and ecological planting design? It would be good to consider their similarities, differences, virtues and limitations further on thinkingardens. Kate Buxton’s piece here, on the Sussex Prairies Garden, opens up this topic. See also Susan Wright’s review and Darryl Moore’s review

Anne Wareham  editor

Sussex Lines: Meadows, Prairies and Downs


Since the 1930s, 98% of lowland meadows and semi-natural grassland habitats have vanished in England and Wales. The UK Native Seed Hub at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, Wakehurst Place, West Sussex, has therefore announced restoration programmes to grow plants which are difficult to cultivate, starting in temporary seed production beds with species such as devil’s bit scabious and harebell.

Ironically, this overdue news, and a statement that a new biodiversity project will create seed stocks to help restore threatened native plants to the UK countryside, comes at a time when conservation, in the form of naturalistic planting, is already well established – in gardens.

This project came about through increasing awareness of the importance of biodiversity in the UK, but it is unclear whether the seeds produced will just be archived in the Seed Bank or reintroduced to our depleted countryside. Farming, with its monoculture, pesticides and genetic modification, is hardly likely to revert to pre-war methods. Gardens, on the other hand, both private and public, have increasingly become safe havens for many plant species.

As long ago as 1912 German nurseryman Karl Foerster (1874-1970), created a garden with a naturalistic planting style. He introduced schemes where plants which otherwise grew in the wild thrived on poor soil, low in nutrients, and formed large, sustainable groups rather than individual clumps. Grasses added to the wildflower meadow effect, an informal style of planting which gradually spread to influence designers elsewhere and became known as the New German style (it is not simple: gardening in rural northern Germany more recently, surrounded by vast tracts of arable land, our ‘natural’ plants were repeatedly covered by foul clouds of chemicals drifting across on the wind).

Over the second half of the last century, this emphasis on working with nature was taken further by an emerging ‘Dutch Wave’ planting style, developed initially as a reaction to older formal, herbaceous planting and combining ornamental grasses with perennials in large swathes. Popularised further in recent years by designer Piet Oudolf, it does not copy nature, but gives a feeling of nature all year round and requires low maintenance.

These modern, informal styles of planting have been adopted In Britain over recent decades, an alternative to the traditional herbaceous borders we have known for centuries, and have been used by designers, if not universally, at least in part.

With ever increasing awareness of ecological issues, native species have been reintroduced and wildflower meadows  planted to echo the natural diversity once common in our countryside. At West Dean garden, near Midhurst, a small meadow softens the approach to the more formal estate gardens, in keeping with the surrounding grass downland and the prolific displays of wild flowering found along roadside verges, and still in some fields, during summer months.

West Dean meadow copyright Kate BuxtonWildflower meadow at West Dean Garden, West Sussex

By contrast, less naturalistic looking in some settings than meadowland is the Dutch Wave style, sometimes called prairie planting, due to its use of perennial species found in North American tall grass prairies, themselves under threat and in need of conservation.

Situated near Henfield, not far from both the Millenium Seed Bank and West Dean, is Sussex Prairies.  Here, another increasingly popular planting style is exhibited; drifts. Influenced by their work with Piet Oudolf, the owners wanted to create a curvilinear garden, rather than the established design solution of ‘garden rooms’. Using ‘Dutch Wave’ plant combinations in a typical Sussex meadowland setting, the McBrides decided to paint with a bigger brush and created a six-acre garden of large, loose perennial drifts interspersed with waving grasses. No wildflower meadow this, but a series of curved beds containing tens of thousands of plants, including combinations of monarda, echinacea, veronicastrum, eupatorium, phlox, lysimachia, inula, helenium, filipendula, rudbeckia and thalictrum, some of which flower well into the autumn.

Some of these plants, such as eupatorium and filipendula, grow prolifically on nearby grass verges and downland tracks, where huge numbers of wild species thrive from early spring. However, the link to ‘borrowed landscape’ is less visible in a prairie setting than in a traditional meadow. West Sussex is a patchwork of fields, woodland and hedgerows framed by the gently rolling Downs and although many prairie species have relatives ‘over here’, it is the indigenous meadowland population which now preoccupies Kew.

The key element of a garden, compared with a meadow, is design. Whereas designers such as Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart Smith use shrubs, hedges and linear definition to give structure to their work, it is risky to leave the architectural impact entirely to the plants. They try, with their voluptuous texture, colour, movement and form, but without focal points to draw the eye and a clear sense of direction, they have to work hard to provide the aesthetic content. Plants may be described as naturalistic, but when design is imposed, in this case an underlying nautilus shape, the designer decides how to maximise their impact, not nature alone.

Sussex Prairies Garden copyright Kate Buxton Prairies drifts

To see the meaning of a shape on the ground we need to be able to look down on it, hence the use of three dimensions in design. And when curves, often used to imply informality, are softened by planting, they become less distinct. At Sussex Prairies there are two small mounds, which give welcome viewpoints, however, not quite enough height to see the whole design.

Height is a significant factor in garden settings, so a new hornbeam hedge, which will eventually be clipped in curves to echo the South Downs, will add definition and a sense of structure to this garden.

The use of a circle within a rectangle is another classic design challenge: how large should it be and what to do with the edges? With a spiral it is more difficult. How tight is right? More important is where the spiral begins and whether this should be the starting point for the visitor, the entrance to the planting experience.

At Sussex Prairies, the relationship of the house to the separate field dictates that the spiral is approached sideways on, so that its curves recede to each side and you are unsure where to start your journey. Right or left? Does it matter?

Sussex Prairies entrance copyright Kate BuxtonSussex Prairies entrance
You make a decision; you can view the garden from wide, mown grass curves intersecting the beds, or walk through the beds between the plants. You may now wander in any direction to experience seemingly endless combinations of stunning plants swaying seductively in the breeze.

Why follow tradition? For some, the absence of obvious direction will be relaxing, and the spiral form will encourage subconscious reflection or meditation, like a labyrinth. Others may already be dizzy from floral exuberance. There are seats.

Just as the opening lines draw the reader in to a novel, the first impression sets the scene for the experience to come, and affects the way we ‘read’ the space we inhabit. A wildflower meadow may be seen as a whole at first glance, having a broad impact. A prairie, due to its large scale, is also seen from a distance. A garden, however, is less satisfying when seen too quickly – the eye looks for  dominant shapes.

The height of planting helps to create a feeling of enclosure in the centre of beds at Sussex Prairies, whereas outside the circular design the impression is more that of an even tapestry.  The inclusion of strategically placed sculpture, such as a row of steel buffalo, helps by adding a humorous focal point.

All this is not to say that the rules cannot be broken, and sometimes this is necessary.

We need to challenge tradition as part of the creative process. It is interesting to note however, that after centuries of discussion about nature in gardens and decades of naturalistic planting styles, those design principles which have shaped the visual arts for centuries still apply to our interaction with, and appreciation of, outdoor spaces.

Kate Buxton
Out-lines Design

See also Adam Hodge’s blog. and if you are interested in these planting schemes, Michael King’s blog. 

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