Tag Archives: prairie gardens

More naturalistic than wild at Wildside

Layer upon layer of plants in this complex but relaxed style of new naturalism

It was raining on the second last day of June when we visited Wildside Garden in Devon but this did not deter us. However, it did mean some of my photos have raindrops blurring out sections when I failed to check my lens. At least it was summer rain and neither cold nor windy. It was our second visit to see if the buzz we felt when we first saw it in 2014 was still there. It was. This is an exceptional garden in our eyes.

Keith and Ros Wiley had shut the garden for the past two years in order to start building their house and are still only open for very limited days but it is worth planning a trip around those days. It was interesting to see the way in which the building of the house gave a central heart to what is a private and very personal garden. But also, we knew we were looking at a situation where the owners’ energies had largely been going into the house in recent times. The garden hadn’t expanded physically into the remaining areas that had already been prepared when we visited in 2014.  It will happen at some stage, I am sure. The existing plantings had filled out and softened in the intervening time.

A plant collector is one for whom the thrill of acquisition and ownership of plants is an end in itself. A plantsperson is one who not only knows what plants are special, but also how to grow them and feature them to advantage. Sometimes a really good gardener is also a top plantsperson and they don’t come much better than Keith Wiley. He finds plants fascinating. He collects plants. He knows how to grow them well, even very difficult material. And he gardens with a huge range.

Wildside has been sculpted from a 4 acre, near flat paddock like this one next door

It is even more remarkable when you consider that Wiley started work with a near flat block of land. He has not only manipulated the contour to create a landscape of hills, hollows, banks and even the odd ravine, he has managed the depth of soil and its composition appropriate to the plants he wants to grow. From the start, his planning was to accommodate communities of plants – to create different ecosystems within the garden to enable growing a wide range of different plants.

Like an Impressionist painting

If you are not much interested in plants themselves, you can admire the scenes he composes These can be like Impressionist paintings though perhaps more Georges Seurat and pointillism than Monet. I am sure it is no coincidence that Ros Wiley is also a painter who prefers flowers and landscape as her subjects. But we are interested in the plants and plant combinations as well. Presumably Wiley has one of the most comprehensive collections of dieramas (angel’s fishing rods) around but they are used throughout and not all concentrated in one block, as “national collections” are usually displayed. We were in the wrong season for the erythroniums for which this garden is renowned but it also has extensive collections of different daphnes, cyclamen, Japanese maples, kniphofia, roscoeas, agapanthus and a host of other bulbs, perennials and smaller growing woody plants.

Dieramas or angels fishing rods in abundant quantities and many hues

There is next to no hard landscaping beyond deliberate placement of rocks and constructions of microclimates. Wiley is one of the early practitioners of the new naturalism gardening style, predicated on working in cooperative harmony with nature and creating eco-systems which are a refined version of many different, natural habitats. Do not confuse this with a wild garden which is left to its own devices. It is controlled but deceptively so, with a light hand.

We had been looking at the naturalistic prairie-style plantings around Olympic Park just a few days prior, greatly enjoying their simple charm. At Wildside, we felt that the Wileys were achieving a hugely detailed, complex and skilled variation of those Sheffield School plantings at Olympic Park, but still on the same spectrum of contemporary naturalism. It is no designer garden. It is a landscape created with sensitivity and top level plantsmanship.

It is also a garden that we will make the effort to keep returning to see. There aren’t many gardens that we have visited where both of us walk out feeling as if we have had an experience of joy. Wildside is one.

New Zealand cordylines in Devon

Raindrops keep falling on my camera lens…

If you want to see more of Wildside, I have posted the companion album to our Facebook page.


The Meadow

Still in its first season, this sown meadow features daisies, corn poppies and the naturally occurring Yorkshire fog

Still in its first season, this sown meadow features daisies, corn poppies and the naturally occurring Yorkshire fog

Meadow gardens sound so very romantic yet are not often seen in this country whereas they are de rigueur in Britain, to the extent that I make jokes that it is clearly the law to have one. But not all meadow gardens are the same by any manner of means.
1) The field sown with wildflower mix is probably what is most commonly referred to as a meadow in this country. These of course are not our native wildflowers – far from it – but the reference is usually to the inclusion of varieties closest to the wild species and consequently smaller and simpler blooms than seen in garden hybrids. The problem in our climate is that favourable growing conditions can make for leggy plants that will be flattened by both heavy rain or wind. It was heavy rain that flattened this wildflower mix at Wisley.

Missouri Meadow June 2014

Missouri Meadow June 2014

As we saw it in June 2009

As we saw it in June 2009

2) We were entranced in 2009 by the new Missouri meadow garden at Wisley, designed by Professor James Hitchmough from the University of Sheffield. This style is now often referred to as being of the Sheffield School of planting design with its focus on ecology and sustainability. Five years later, it has developed into a huge perennial bed and much of the original detail has gone. It is still most attractive and low maintenance but it has lost the meadow feel. I have not seen prairies but I doubt that it is a prairie reinterpretation either.

June 2014 at the Old Vicarage in Norfolk

June 2014 at the Old Vicarage in Norfolk

Same month, back in 2009

Same month, back in 2009

3) The wildflower meadow at the Old Vicarage Garden in Norfolk was delightful in its flowering simplicity in 2009. This is it at the same time of the year in 2014 although the flowering appeared to be delayed this year. The yellow corn marigold and grasses have swamped out most other plants. The owner told us he keeps trying to get the corn poppies re-established but without great success. Meadows evolve over time. To constantly spray off and resow in flowers, as sometimes recommended in New Zealand, does not give you a meadow. It gives you a garden of annuals.

Pensthorpe in the north of Norfolk

Pensthorpe in the north of Norfolk

4) Maximum ecological brownie points are earned by those who have the patience to allow a natural meadow to develop with no over-sowing or management of plant content. What is present has arrived naturally and is allowed to stay. No sprays are used and no stock grazes the area. However, most meadows will be cut sometime in late August, left to lie for two weeks to allow seed to fall out and then the hay raked off, to prevent a build up of fertility.

Pettifers Garden near Stratford on Avon

Pettifers Garden near Stratford on Avon

5) Dry grass has charm. This is a bulb meadow being allowed to dry off naturally – quite possibly bluebells, daffodils and snowdrops in spring. Those are allium seed heads showing which are just passing over, heading into early summer. In our more fertile conditions with higher rainfall, we are more likely to get less attractive rank, wet, green growth heavily infested with what we call weeds. Maybe it is time to reconsider our classification and attitude to many such weeds.

yellow rattle (2)

6) Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is an integral part of English meadows. It is a parasitic plant that weakens grass growth and allows other plants to establish with reduced competition, increasing the diversity. Obviously we do not need this plant to escape into our farming pastures and I do not even know if it is in New Zealand. We have seen something similar growing wild on our road verge and will be having a closer look this summer. We think it may be a broomrape rather than a Rhinanthus.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Meadows, prairies and wildflower gardens

We gave our eldest a particularly good book on American wildflower and prairie gardens for Christmas and her eyes lit up. It seemed a moment of triumph in parenting which I have not seen recorded before – the age when children of gardening parents are delighted to be given such a gift. There was a touch of envy from us. It was a lovely book but also a gardening genre which is largely beyond our reach.

Prairie gardens and meadow gardens are not compatible with good dairy country so this garden style is likely to be unattainable for a fair swag of readers too, but it doesn’t mean we can’t admire it elsewhere. Dairy country by definition has high fertility and good rainfall along with temperatures that are mild enough to grow grass strongly all year round. That is not prairie territory.

Our eldest lives in Canberra which offers perfect conditions. It has low rainfall, low fertility and is very cold and dry in winter (which stops pretty much all plant growth) and very hot and dry in summer. Pasture grasses and weeds will not overtake the chosen plants. Annuals and perennials will not romp away with lush growth that gets flattened here by frequent heavy downpours. Instead, plants will hang in and grow slowly, tenaciously putting down roots in search of elusive moisture and sustenance and flower stems will be much shorter and sturdier. Prairie conditions, in fact. So it is perfectly realistic to think that one can create a garden sward of tough perennials and ornamental grasses which will sway in the wind and put up a succession of blooms over a period of several months.


Essentially a meadow garden is made up of wild flowers as close to their natural form as possible, often natives. This means shunning modern, sometimes over-bred hybrids which tend to go for much larger flowers and compact, bushy growth. A meadow garden is simulating the wild but modifying it to a garden setting. There is a long tradition in English gardening and the routines are well known. It relies on low fertility to keep down competing grasses and the parasitic plant referred to as Yellow Rattle is often introduced because it weakens the roots of grasses.

At the end of the season in autumn, the meadow is mown and left to lie for a week or maybe two. This allows the seed to fall out of the spent plants. After 10 days, the mown area is raked free of the cut vegetation to keep fertility low. The area is then left to come again the following spring.

Can you imagine doing that in dairy country? It will not work.

076The advice I saw in a NZ magazine, which I will not name here, to sow your wildflower garden into an area which you have cultivated and fed to the max with proprietary fertilisers and then to sow again in mid season if it starts to pass over is not a wildflower garden at all. It is simply mixed annuals.

Introduce grasses to the mix along with at least some North American native flowers and your meadow garden becomes a prairie garden, more or less. Cone flowers (echinacea), ox-eye daisies (Heliopsis helianthoides), monardas, Californian poppies (properly called eschsholtzias but I have to check the spelling every time) – North America is rich in wildflowers. The prairie garden has been embraced by contemporary European and UK gardens and designers and I can see why. Clumps of grasses are deathly dull when planted in groups or when mass planted to achieve the motorway embankment look, but take on huge charm in the company of a wide range of flowering plants, both perennials and annuals.

What characterises both meadow and prairie gardens is an absence of woody plants, an absence of layers (plants tend to be of a similar, low height), a higher tolerance of weeds and seasonality – in winter there is no garden at all to speak of. It is a much more relaxed style, hugely different to how many of us choose to garden. It can also be environmentally sound, especially in harsh climates, because it provides food for birds and insects while anchoring the soil in windy conditions with no fertiliser inputs or spraying.

In season, such gardens are infinitely charming in all their manifestations. It has a lot to do with the simplicity and the relaxed style. We are still wondering whether we can manage something similar here in a new garden we have planned but we are fighting nature and will have to choose plants carefully as well as overcoming our ingrained antipathy to weeds and a belief that gardens should look good for all twelve months of the year.


Earlier last month, I visited a field of bearded iris in flower. I don’t want to overstate the case. It was a nursery (http://www.theirisboutique.co.nz/) growing the iris rhizomes in rows in a field and there were a fair number weeds, to the embarrassment of the owner. It was also an absolute delight which made me smile.

It is the simplicity of an expanse of flowers in a field situation which appeals. Gardens do not have to be heavily designed and intensively maintained with high quality permanent plantings of trees and shrubs to make one’s heart sing.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.