Melancholy song of the prairie
According to TS Eliot, April is the cruellest month, but in my garden January takes the prize. The endless deluges of late, coupled with gale force winds, have created a winter landscape that is a brown, tangled mess.
Many gardens will be looking a little worse for wear at the moment, unless blessed with beautiful topiary or colourful shrubs. However, my borders are dominated by perennials and grasses, with not a shrub in sight, so they look sad, bedraggled and in desperate need of a radical cutback. But, one of the defining rules of prairie gardening (also known as New Perennials), is that plants are beautiful wherever they are in their life cycle, be that at the height of their powers or at the moment of decay. Therefore, they stay as they are until the end of February, whatever they look like.
In an ideal world, my garden should, at this time of year, be transformed, with hoar frosts and clear blue skies showcasing its carefully considered structure. Having made the artistic jump from a shrub-dominated plot to a perennial one, I hoped for endless days of frozen beauty – Miscanthus sinensis presiding over frost-dipped nepetas and the bobble heads of Echinops ritro. In reality, I have Stipa gigantea that has been beaten into submission by the wind and jumbles of Knautia macedonica that lie supine and defeated.
Prairie planting is hugely reliant on the vagaries of the weather. During the brutal winter of 2010-11, the garden looked beautiful. The fragility of the dead seed heads and desiccated flowers was held in suspended animation by the icy air. However, the fluidity and movement of a prairie garden are its downfall during a soft, squelchy winter. A hardy shrub can withstand most weathers and will come through the winter unscathed. But in a prairie planting at this point in the season everything above ground is dead, and the fragile remains cannot cope with an onslaught of wind and rain.
As I write, overlooking the garden, the sun is out, lending an air of respectability. But on closer inspection, there is a sinking of the heart; nepeta are smashed and broken, echinacea brown and soggy and Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’ now lies horizontal after a particularly windy night. But it’s not all bad news. Our lovely long summer bleached the grasses to perfection and the current brightness is highlighting that. Surprisingly, the Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ remain upright, standing sentinel-like above the havoc below. The perovskia, although a shadow of their usual selves, still retain their shape, albeit in a ghostly form.
So, is there anything that can be done to change this? Certainly in terms of design, there are ways of reducing winter’s impact on the aesthetics of a prairie garden. Some of the borders are flanked by a young box hedge. At only three years old it is already providing some much-needed winter structure and when it reaches maturity it may be the saving grace of this part of the garden. The infant knot garden beside the kitchen door is also beginning to draw the eye and will provide a formal foil to the ageing perennials. The garden also features various box squares and these lend a sense of formality that contrasts nicely with the chaos of the flower beds. Elsewhere, the wide paths lessen the impact of the flower beds; the gravel and stone, both warm in colour, look lovely against the grasses on a sunny day.
Perhaps, stylistically, the most important aspect is scale – this makes everything look as though you have done it on purpose, that your design was meant to look like this. Thin strips or tiny pockets of moribund perennials and grasses would look far worse than large beds and substantial plantings. At least the garden is unapologetic about the state it is in and the design retains some punch.
In practical terms, would maintaining it differently during summer and autumn improve its appearance now? Perhaps the judicious use of the Chelsea Chop may have been sensible. If some plants were less leggy they may have stood a better chance of remaining upright. But, deep down, that doesn’t suit my style. I weed when necessary and cut back in late February and that’s it, so tinkering with plants in May is something I am loath to do.
Staking may have helped, but most plants are grown for their naturalistic appearance so, again, that doesn’t really suit my hands-off approach. The most useful thing I could have done would have been to keep the grass short. Its length is adding to the generally unkempt atmosphere. A nicely shorn lawn could have made a lot of difference.
Prairie gardening comes at a price. Yet, despite the confusion of brown foliage, I will be sad to see it go. Looking at it on a bleak January day may make me despair, but tidying and cutting back in October would be missing the point entirely.
Would I go back to a shrub and herbaceous mix, to give the garden a failsafe winter structure? Never. Because on a summer’s day, with a breeze coaxing the garden to life, I can think of no better place to be.
Kirsty Grocott is a freelance writer and garden designer based in Shropshire. Follow her on Twitter @kirstygroc
Cold beauty: a hard frost means a good year for Kirsty Grocott’s garden, above; frosty echinops seedhead, inset