Melan­choly song of the prairie

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

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

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