As au­tumn sets in, Tom Stuart-smith’s ex­per­i­men­tal gar­den in Hert­ford­shire pro­vides an eye-catch­ing py­rotech­nic dis­play

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - words by paula mcwa­ters pho­to­graphs by mar­i­anne ma­jerus

As au­tumn sets in, Tom Stuart-smith’s ex­per­i­men­tal gar­den pro­vides an eye-catch­ing py­rotech­nic dis­play

Peep into Tom Stuart-smith’s prairie gar­den in Hert­ford­shire in mid­june and you will be met by a sea of dense, lush green fo­liage – layer upon layer of tex­ture and vary­ing leaf shape, as the frame­work of mostly na­tive North Amer­i­can peren­ni­als builds. Here and there, the fresh green is dot­ted with ma­genta pink as the first flower heads of Dianthus carthu­siano­rum and Knau­tia mace­donica emerge. The colour­ing-in has just be­gun. Re­turn at this time of year, in late Septem­ber or early Oc­to­ber, and you will be mes­merised by the change of scene. It is as if a dozen Im­pres­sion­ists have been hard at work in the in­terim, art­fully daub­ing it with the sun­shine yel­lows of rud­beckia and sil­phium; the pur­ples, sky-blues and laven­der-blues of asters; the pur­ple-red tri-lobed leaves of Core­op­sis tripteris, known as tall tick­seed, and the grey of Eryn­gium yuc­ci­folium. The ef­fect is stun­ning. Grass paths that curve be­tween the beds have be­come all but in­vis­i­ble – im­pass­able in places – as the peren­ni­als reach for the sky, some hav­ing now peaked at close to three me­tres high, with their heads wav­ing in the breeze. There is no stak­ing to be done, no feed­ing and not even any weed­ing (at this stage, at least). The for­est of peren­ni­als is so thick, there is no room left for in­ter­lop­ers and each plant oblig­ingly sup­ports its neigh­bours. The whole scene can just be en­joyed for what it is. Land­scape de­signer Tom sowed the prairie in Jan­uary 2010 and it has fared ex­tremely well since, still earn­ing its place in his farm­land gar­den at The Barn near Wat­ford, only a mile or two from the M1 and M25. It con­tin­ues to be ex­per­i­men­tal and Tom has been pleased with the ef­fect it cre­ates, es­pe­cially as it pro­vides such a wealth of flower colour later in the year. “It was quite a chal­lenge to get it es­tab­lished – we had to deal with an ex­plo­sion of but­ter­cups to start with – and only a year ago I paid two peo­ple to pull up ex­cess asters for a whole week in the au­tumn, just to re­dress the bal­ance of species, but over­all it has been a great suc­cess.”

Tom re­lied upon James Hitch­mough, pro­fes­sor of hor­ti­cul­tural ecol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield, who worked on the won­der­ful plant­ing schemes at Lon­don’s Olympic Park, to come up with tailor-made seed mixes. Th­ese suit the var­i­ous soils found on the site, which are mostly sandy and free-drain­ing but with an area of heavy clay at the east­ern end. He used a com­bi­na­tion of more than 50 species of tough peren­ni­als in a rel­a­tively high sow­ing den­sity of be­tween 96 and 130 seedlings per square me­tre.

Tom’s gar­dener Brian Maslin de­scribes how it was made: “The land, pre­vi­ously meadow grass­land and sur­rounded by hedges, was sprayed off, turned over with a dig­ger and lev­elled.” Tom had de­signed a se­ries of sin­u­ous or­ganic shapes, sep­a­rated by two-me­tre-wide grass paths and a gravel walk­way along the side near­est the house. “Once th­ese were marked out, we loaded each one up with 75mm of sand to dis­cour­age weeds

“It is as if half a dozen Im­pres­sion­ists have been daub­ing with sun­shine yel­lows and laven­der blues”

and make a free-drain­ing seedbed, then scat­tered the seed over each area by hand.” The seed had been weighed out and bagged up in­di­vid­u­ally for each of the dif­fer­ent ar­eas and then mixed with large quan­ti­ties of saw­dust so that it could be more evenly dis­trib­uted. “Of course, it was vi­tal that it was done on a wind­less day,” Brian adds.

Af­ter seed­ing, jute mat­ting was spread over the beds and pinned in place, to pre­vent the seed blow­ing away and to dis­cour­age birds. Over time, this has rot­ted down and dis­ap­peared but it pro­vided use­ful pro­tec­tion ini­tially. One of the joys (and, per­haps, some­times one of the frus­tra­tions) of this method of gar­den-mak­ing is the ran­dom­ness of it. “There is no con­trol over the clumps,” Brian says. “They come up where they come up.”

An enor­mous amount of weed­ing had to be done in the first year to get on top of in­vaders such as but­ter­cups and couch grass. Sim­i­lar prairie gar­dens (in­clud­ing the one at RHS Gar­den Wis­ley) have not been such a great suc­cess, which Tom puts down to the sheer chal­lenge of weed man­age­ment. Even now, seven years on, spring weed­ing has to be as­sid­u­ous from Fe­bru­ary un­til the be­gin­ning of June. “Af­ter that we can’t get into the beds be­cause ev­ery­thing has grown to­gether, which helps crowd the weeds out,” Brian says. “So we just pull out any­thing we can reach from the paths.” Once es­tab­lished,

the prairie gar­den pretty much looks af­ter it­self from early June un­til the end of Jan­uary, when it is all cut down and ei­ther com­posted or burnt. Be­fore that, in early win­ter it is alive with flocks of goldfinches, all vy­ing for the thou­sands of seed­heads that pro­vide them with win­ter sus­te­nance – a spec­ta­cle that Tom and his wife Sue take great de­light in. It is a mag­i­cal place for sev­eral months, chang­ing day by day.

As the prairie has de­vel­oped, species come and go at will. Veron­i­cas­trums have started to seed into it from ad­join­ing ar­eas of gar­den. Vi­ola soro­ria has found its way here, which Tom is very happy about. He has added diera­mas (An­gel’s fish­ing rods) and lat­terly some pur­ple se­dums and gold­en­rod

Sol­idago ru­gosa, both of which he feels less sure about. For any­one con­tem­plat­ing sow­ing a sim­i­lar prairie gar­den, Tom ad­vises that an area of at least 200 square me­tres is needed and he feels that a bound­ary – ei­ther a hedge or a wall – is es­sen­tial to con­tain and make sense of the plant­ing. Of course, the species he has cho­sen can still be used in much smaller gar­dens in more con­ser­va­tive quan­ti­ties, among mixed plant­ing, to brighten the space in late sum­mer and au­tumn. Asters (which are now re­named Sym­phy­otrichum) are tough and re­li­able, and rud­beckia bring a burst of late-sum­mer sun­shine, while eryn­giums pro­vide long-last­ing seed­heads to punc­tu­ate the bor­ders.

The prairie gar­den has been one of Tom’s test beds. “I felt I had to try it for my­self. I de­sign gar­dens for other peo­ple but with this con­cept I wanted to own it, man­age it and watch how it be­haves. That’s the way to learn.”

ABOVE New Eng­land aster ‘Septem­ber­ru­bin’ and seed­heads of Echi­nacea pal­l­ida are an at­trac­tive pair­ing OP­PO­SITE Therich yel­low of Rud­beckia fulgida var. deamii con­trasts with the aro­matic aster Sym­phy­otrichum ob­longi­folius

CLOCK­WISE, FROM LEFT The ar­chi­tec­tural splendour ofEryn­gium yuc­ci­folium with sky­blue aster Sym­phy­otrichumazureus and ruby S. no­vaean­gliae ‘Septem­ber­ru­bin’; sunny Rud­beckia fulgida var. deamii; Sil­phium tere­binthi­naceum

ABOVE The leaves of the yel­low daisy-like Core­op­sistripteris turn a deep pur­plered in au­tumn. It thrives in full sun BE­LOW The strik­ing dark brown seed­heads ofRud­beckia max­ima stand out in low light

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