It may seem strange to have three reviews of one garden on the thinkingardens site. However, we are frequently told that different people experience gardens differently. It seems right to me that those differences, or lack of them, should be available for people to consider. It is interesting to me that the three thinkingardens reviewers saw similar weaknesses and problems with the Sussex Prairies Garden. This has often been my experience and it flies in the face of the notion that ‘we all have different tastes’. There is often an amazing unanimity amongst experienced garden visitors once we’ve got past ‘lovely’.
Darryl’s review also usefully addresses what we might or might not expect from a ‘prairie’ (definition = “a treeless grassy plain of the central U.S and S Canada”: Collins English Dictionary) garden and whether this is one. And if not, what is it?
I think these pieces also exemplify how poorly pictures convey the visitor’s experiences, which will be the subject of another thinkingardens piece shortly.
Anne Wareham, editor
The first confusing thing about the Sussex Prairies Garden is the nomenclature involved. The name conjures up a pre-conception of what a visit may hold in store, suggesting grass filled fields peppered with occasional bursts of perennials drifting off towards the distance. Indeed the romantic allusions of the plains are invoked in the garden itself with the inclusion of Cor-ten Bison sculptures lumbering across the lawns. But although the six acre site could conceivably lend itself to something of that kind, it clearly is not a Prairie style garden for many reasons, no matter how many references attempt to stampede the message home.
Given that the Prairie style is associated with a sense of endless expanse and a dialogue with the surrounding landscape, it is one which often produces culturally confused results when exported to other countries. The surrounding farmland reaching towards the nearby South Downs would surely create an incongruous conversation with any planting plan based upon this home on the range style, so despite its misguided moniker, it is perhaps just as well that Sussex Prairies Gardens has not actually attempted to effect anything quite so literal. The actual site, a former field surrounded by an intermittent band of oak trees on the perimeter, limits the extent of the borrowed landscape and forecloses any possibility of making any such stylistic faux pas.
But it is the actual planting employed which really betrays itself to be of another order, one quite clearly articulated in the New Perennial vernacular. For whilst the garden includes large amounts of grasses (Panicum Virgatum ‘Rehbraun’, Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldschleier’ & ‘Goldtau’, Molinia caerulea arundinacea ‘Karl Foerster’ etc) they are obviously not all American natives, nor the key elements in the matrix, nor arranged as they would be in a Prairie style planting.
Instead they are planted as distinct blocks which provide focal points fragmenting the field of vision and creating textural counterpoints within the scheme. Likewise, amongst the herbaceous planting many typical prairie species are in evidence (Rudbeckia, Solidago, Echinacea, Baptisia etc), but they are also deployed in blocks and sited freely next to cousins from distant continents. Given the prevalence and popularity of those plants today, their appearance is unsurprising, and although there are a few nods to Oehme and Van Sweden’s planting combinations, they appear as isolated showcases rather than as integral to the overall design strategy.
Instead, it is the presence of Piet Oudolf that looms large in the garden through the use of the extended palette of new perennial plants internationally associated with his work, something which has been readily acknowledged by Sussex Prairies Garden owners Paul and Pauline McBride, who worked with him on a garden in Luxembourg in 2001. Inspired by the Dutchman’s formidable planting acumen they have created a bigger, brighter, blockier interpretation of the style, which consequently forgoes many of the subtleties the genre offers, in preference of providing a high impact wow factor.
The scope and scale of the endeavour are indeed impressive. With a display of 30,000 healthy plants in the garden, its candy store array reveals an appreciative addiction and provides a hearty fix for hortiphiliacs. This particularly expressive example of the British fascination with the floriferous certainly pushes all the populist buttons, but also reveals the national foible which perceives a collection of plants as the primary condition of a garden: a misunderstanding much to the detriment of design. This is a trap which Sussex Prairies Garden seems to have fallen into, trying too hard to impress with its billions of billowing blooms and disarming displays of horticultural shock and awe.
This highlights a cultural difference that negates many of the intricacies employed by the Europeans using this style. Oudolf’s unique skill lies not simply the plants he uses, but rather in the relationships he creates between them, bringing out similarities and differences through repetition and contrast of form, texture and colour.
Oudolf’s technique suffuses all these aspects together into a coherent whole, something Sussex Prairies Garden makes an admirable attempt to do. Unfortunately, lacking the master’s touch, it delivers an unconvincing result. The success of combining plants to reveal their detail and structural attributes may be subjective to a degree, but many of the pairings in the garden simply look odd and detract from the individual characteristics of the partnered plants (the very thing this style is supposed to emphasise).
The size of the blocks of individual species are too large to enact an effective interplay between their neighbours, providing instead a visual assault of colour and mass, almost a Legoland landscape, which becomes the garden’s over-riding characteristic.
Taking the New Perennial approach in such an exaggerated direction has resulted in a reliance on the planting to define the space and create the flows of circulation through the space. Comparison with Oudolf again marks the different ways in which this can be handled. His scheme at Trentham has a meandering flow where the planting fades in transitions, from the ‘Rivers of Grass’ lowland area comprising of Molinia Caerulea ‘Edith Dudzus’ and ‘Heidebraut’, through to the densely planted ‘Floral Labyrinth’ replete with his signature perennials. The sloping contours of Pensthorpe engages the mannerist planting in a dialectic conversation with the managed ‘wildness’ which surrounds it. But in contrast Sussex Prairies Garden exhibits a confusion of design strategies both in its internal and external spatial relationships and structural arrangements.
Any garden’s response to the surrounding environment is critical in a successful design. The degree of openness or enclosure is a primary determinant of its identity, whether a small Islamic riyad courtyard or an 18th century English landscape. In this respect the boundary planting of oak trees effectively defines the area of the Sussex Prairies Garden site but fails to construct a convincing feeling of enclosure. The garden feels orphaned from the house, and divorced from the wider landscape around it, as if it has been simply dropped into place. This lack of dialogue with the surroundings leaves the interior layout of the garden struggling to establish a logic with itself, and wrestling with the question of how to successfully deploy formality when attempting to create a ‘natural’ garden.
Within the confines of the site a series of island beds have been laid out in the shape of a nautilus, a pattern not evidenced at ground level when actually moving around the garden, nor even from the mounded areas of planting. This is one of the pitfalls of creating a strong 2D pattern on paper and then translating it into a 3D dynamic space – the original intention gets lost in the process. This is accentuated by the predominant use of perennials – their height and bulk obscures such detail. Something of a catch 22 situation given that they are the main feature.
The rows of hornbeam hedging defining a central longitudinal avenue through the garden are not yet mature enough to have an emphatic structural effect (their undulating tops appear as another nod to Oudolf, who ironically pulled the iconic hedging out of his garden at Hummelo this summer). The accompanying fastigiate hornbeams, also still to reach maturity, add a sense of verticality in a perplexingly Italianate manner, framing the extended perspective of the avenue, seemingly in a lo-fi attempt at creating the grand pomp and circumstance of a Le Notre style vista. Any such impression is thwarted by the positioning of the Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ beds running down the middle, which serve to emphasise the disproportionate sense of scale and aspiration of this feature.
In contrast to the over-wide paths which navigate the garden, the paths which wind their way through the beds are an effective strategy, entangling the visitor and encouraging them to become fully immersed in the garden. This encounter with the plants uses them to maximum effect and affords opportunity to really appreciate their detail at close quarters, as well as providing numerous possible trajectories to discover the site, giving it a maze-like feel.
The simulated ‘naturalism’ of the ponds with their muddy depths, stand out starkly against the artifice of the planting and the geometry of the hedging and grass paths, creating a tension in the formal/informal balance, but missing an opportunity to use their disparity as a layer of complexity which could be a core design driver. The possible references suggested to the English landscape, bison watering holes or Monet-esque impressionism remain unexplored, with the ponds simply acting as a signifiers of a landscape untouched by anthropological intent, and reflecting a certain zeitgeist woolly fascination with biodiversity.
The fact that the plants themselves occupy centre stage of the garden undoubtedly provides the project with its USP, one that has already proved effective in garnering much media fawning over the flora. But given the imaginative design possibilities opened up by the New Perennial style, it is a shame to see it utilised simply as a 21st century update on the tried and tested language of Victorian bedding, albeit one which is writ colourfully large. As a botanical garden presenting the chart topping species from the New Perennial hit parade the Sussex Prairies Garden works very well, but the consequence is that it does not feel like a space to linger in, to inhabit, or in which to dwell. The scattered benches around the site do little to address this and seem ill considered in offering instances of intimacy, proffering instead public park utilitarianism for visitors needing to recover from flower fatigue.
Practically the garden works most effectively as a living catalogue of plants for the McBride’s business of supplying plants for their garden design service, by allowing clients to take a pick and mix approach to planting design. Along with revenue from cut flower sales and garden tourism this may well be a wise financial modus operandi for anyone creating an ambitious garden on this scale. But these underlying commercial concerns appear to have put business before pleasure, and plants before people, neglecting much of the rich tapestry of experiences that gardens have to offer.
Narrowing the focus of the garden in this way has been at the cost of a design which would ultimately enhance the integrity of the project’s horticultural intention. A closer attention to this balance and a more nuanced approach would, rather than reinforcing the ongoing divide in the garden world between plants and design, surely grow greater rewards all round.