Garden to visit Pensthorpe Millennium Garden is a dazzling prairie garden in rural Norfolk
This dazzling Millennium Garden in the heart of Norfolk is a feast for the senses. Melissa Mabbitt revels in the plants
The mellow days of late summer and early autumn bring out the best in prairie-style plantings. At Pensthorpe Millennium Garden in Norfolk the beauty of this modern style has been perfected, reaching its atmospheric and colourful peak in September. The one-acre garden was completed in 1999, the first British public garden designed by Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, originator of the modern prairie style. Today it blends seamlessly with its surroundings – a large nature reserve that was home to BBC Springwatch from 2008–2010. In devising the prairie look (or ‘new perennial’ style of planting) Oudolf made a departure from the mixed herbaceous borders so often found in British gardens. Instead this style evokes the natural landscape, mimicking the colonies of tall flowering perennials and grasses that epitomise open grasslands. Planted in large, flowing groups, the combination of forms is tranquil yet captivating as the eye moves from group to group of complementary forms. Tactile grass seedheads create a hazy foil for the strong, sculptural outlines of herbaceous perennials such as phlomis, monarda and achillea. Swathes of echinacea, helenium and other latesummer daisies are integral to the look, alongside long plumes of astilbe, spikes of veronicastrum and delicately branching Verbena bonariensis, all of which work together to make a beautiful tapestry filled with rich colours and textures. The plants in this garden get into their stride in late summer. They’re mostly tall and airy, creating movement when the summer breeze catches their stems. By now the grasses have produced the tactile flowers and seedheads so crucial to tying
“Tactile grass seedheads create a hazy foil for the strong, sculptural outlines of flowering perennials”
the design together. The colours are warm and complex, with a rich variety of hues and tints. Bright pink and purple blooms provide eye-catching accents among more muted gold and fawn grasses, the sunbleached seedheads of descampsia and yellow-orange heleniums that form a golden thread through the plantings. The beds are wide and deep, cut through with gravel paths that allow you to survey the rolling mass from every angle. In every direction are fabulous contrasts of colour and form: plumes of miscanthus and astilbe set against the flat daisies of echinacea, while spires of salvia and lollipops of echinops float against a mist of delicate blue perovskia. Birds and butterflies are attracted to the nectar- and seed-rich plantings too. On a warm sunny day you might see peacock, brimstone, painted lady, red admiral and comma butterflies flitting among the flowers. In late September, small birds alight on the echinacea and grasses to feast on the seeds within. Although prairies are synonymous with the Americas, Oudolf’s style is distinctly European. A Dutch garden designer and plant expert, he was inspired by our own wild landscapes and driven to create mood and atmosphere in a garden in the same way that a painter would on canvas.
“The beds are... cut through with gravel paths that allow you to survey the rolling mass from every angle”
Oudolf’s designs gained popularity in Germany in the late 20th century and made their way to Britain in the 1990s. The Pensthorpe garden became a British showcase and he returned in 2010 to completely replant it. With the benefit of 10 years hindsight he’d discovered how prairie gardens evolve, and had found the bestbehaved plants for looks and longevity. It’s a stunning place to visit in the depths of winter when the seedheads are traced in frost, but September is the month for a planting masterclass in colour and texture, as the garden forms a spectacular sea that your senses can almost swim in.
PRAIRIE PERFECTION (L-R) This gorgeous sea of planting includes banks of pink lythrum, dark, slender stemmed cimicifuga, heleniums, astilbe ‘Purplelanze’ and a fluffy mass of deschampsia ‘Goldtau’; shimmering perovskia ‘Blue Star’ with echinops ‘Veitch’s Blue’ and
RICH TAPESTRY (clockwise from top) Rusty-toned astilbe, echinacea, plumes of Calamagrostis brachytricha, white actaea and pink eupatorium; bring binoculars; a nonchalant crane; Verbena bonariensis above yellow achillea and lythrum