Prairie-style planting, also known as new perennial planting, focusses on the use of ornamental grasses combined with late-flowering perennials, to create a naturalistic look.
The style has largely been popularised by the work of garden designers like Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury, whose projects and books will serve as brilliant sources of inspiration if you’re after ideas.
In larger gardens you can plant in drifts of plants. In smaller gardens, try planting the same perennial in small groups of around three, then plant another small grouping of a different perennial mingled in with the first group, and continue in this way. Structure can be added with large ornamental grasses or neat, clipped topiary shapes.
Discover the essential plants to grow in a prairie border, below.
Members of the daisy family (Asteraceae) are an essential component in prairie-style borders. Echinacea purpurea is a stunning representative of the family, with bright pink flowers. If you’re going for a particular colour scheme, there are plenty of other cultivars to grow – ‘White Swan’ has white flowers while those of ‘Art’s Pride’ are warm orange. Also consider Echinacea pallida which has lovely ethereal flowers and less foliage, so it won’t shade out its neighbours as much.
Heleniums provide splashes of colour that can be bright and dramatic or darker and more subdued, depending on the variety you choose. They flower late in the season, usually from midsummer and into autumn. Find out how to plant and deadhead heleniums.
Veronicastrums have tapering flowers that echo the appearance of many ornamental grasses, so they’re well suited to new perennial plantings. Most are very tall, so plant them at the back of your borders. Fantastic for pollinators.
Rudbeckias are native to the meadows and prairies of North America, where they can be seen growing alongside red and pink flowers like Indian paintbrush (Castilleja) and echinaceas. Find out more about rudbeckias to grow.
A classic addition to perennial planting schemes, achilleas have attractive feathery foliage and flat-topped flowerheads. There are lots of cultivars to grow, with flowers ranging from white through to yellows, oranges, pinks and purples. Good for the front and middle of the border.
This airy perennial provides flowers for pollinators and feathery foliage that will complement the other plants in your borders. Fennel is tall, so can hold its own towards the back of borders. It doesn’t tend to shade out other plants though, so could also be dotted at the front and middle of borders to add height.
Calamagrostis are some of the first grasses to emerge in spring, producing a dense sward of green foliage, followed by feathery flowers from June. These tall grasses can reach 2m tall, so are good for the back of the border. Cut back in early spring to make way for new growth.
Several Panicum virgatum (a prairie native) cultivars have dramatic foliage that appears to have been dipped in red wine. It’s a gorgeous effect and provides good contrast with the green and gold foliage of other ornamental grasses.
Molinia is a small genus containing just two species. Molinia caerulea is a UK native that is useful in prairie planting schemes because it’s partially transparent, meaning you can see through it to view other plants or the sky. Cultivars to grow include ‘Transparent’ and ‘Windspiel’.
Two Stipa species in particular will suit prairie borders. The first, Stipa tenuissima grows to around 60cm in height and has feathery foliage that blends effortlessly with other plants. The second, Stipa gigantea, reaches over 2m tall and suits the back of the border. Both provide a hazy foil for flowers that is reminiscent of the North American prairies.
Tips for maintaining your prairie border
- If you have any gaps in your borders, consider planting spring and summer bulbs
- Choose plants that have good autumn colour and attractive seedheads to extend the interest of your border
- Make sure the theme of your border is clear throughout by repeating plants, rather than overwhelming it with lots of different plants
- Keep trees and shrubs to a minimum – they’ll shade out these sun-loving plants and aren’t necessary for structure, which is provided by ornamental grasses
- Use sleek, hard landscaping to provide a good contrast to the informal planting