Sussex Prairie Gardens- The wild west on our doorstep
Decades ago, when Pauline met Paul, a Scotsman tending the Commonwealth War Graves in the Somme, she not only met the unequivocal love of her life, but their union began an adventure into the horticultural world of Prairie flora that has dazzled the south of England for the last 10 years. With 35,000 plants it is Britain’s largest Prairie or ‘Naturalistic’ gardens.
They travelled through Europe designing people’s gardens until a billionaire businessman in Luxembourg commissioned them to design his garden. He took on board Piet Oldorf as an advisor, the European ‘Rembrandt’ of planting combinations and leader in a style that was just beginning to sweep across Europe and the rest of the world. Over the next few years, Pauline and Paul had masterclasses in this Prairie style of planting.
For 10 years they worked on this single garden until eventually they decided to realise their dream of bringing their skills back to the UK to create their own public garden. Pauline returned to the farm she grew up on and they embarked upon turning it into a prairie amidst the placid cows and hay bales just outside Henfield.
They grew on thousands of plants from seed and brought in hundreds of tonnes of soil to improve the clay of the farm. Not only that, they created a huge Herrigbone irrigation network to stop the clay from collecting water and water logging the wet adverse Prairie plants. They then had a two and a half week planting party where friends and relatives planted solidly for a fortnight. “ We just fed and watered them and then fed and watered them!”
“It was a risk. We used all our money and it was a leap into the unknown but we knew it would pay off.”
In ten years they have not only created an award winning garden where bus loads of garden lovers arrive each day, but also a community.
Currently they have students from France, Russia and China, an army of volunteers who love spending time in the garden and artists who exhibit their work amongst the great grasses and tall flower stems.
“It has become a whole life for us. We treat our volunteers well with cake and tea and work beside them. We have students from three or four colleges plus some from Sheffield University. We have also been accepted as an RHS garden recently. We run all sorts of garden workshops and work experience programmes well.” Pauline agreed with me about the whole world now coming to them.
“Yes but we still love to travel. Obviously we can only leave in the Winter but last year we went to South India and were so inspired that we have now created a little tropical garden as you enter the main space”
Why the Prarie style? Pauline can’t say exactly but her eyes brim with passion before she shoots off to serve a customer a slice of one of her cakes. When she comes back she talks about the beauty of this style.
‘Most English gardens peak in the Spring and early Summer. Prairie plants come into their own in late Summer and Autumn as that is how long they take to develop in the the mild English weather. We do add bulbs for Spring interest and over the years we have added strong Winter structural plants like Ilex crenata and Hornbeam.
“Prarie plants have so much to give. The leaf texture, stem colour and structure, seed heads and flowers. We even factor in the way the buds look. We restrict the planting pallet to create strong visual impact.”
Ornamental grasses, so often looking like sore thumb in suburban gardens, come into their own in this garden and because flowers are woven in amongst them the whole effect is like a wild tapestry.
And maintaining these many hectares?
As well as an army of volunteers the sprinkler is on permanently at the moment, and it takes a full 6 weeks of moving it to different areas to cover the whole garden – and then they start again.
“In the late winter we wait till its a very still and dry day and then burn everything to the ground, just as it would happen in the wild.” Anyone nervous about pruning their grasses or prairie originated perennials should take note of this!
Pauline and Paul have created a space one wants to revisit. The tea house is a comfortable, eccentric mix of found objects, different coloured throws, chairs and sofas and they even have a little nursery selling more unusual plants.
The passion and generosity of its founders is everywhere. When I asked if she had kids she said evenly- “This is our baby”
Any more ambitions to expand?
“We don’t think so. We have enough work to keep up with everything here. We would like to do a garden at Chelsea. We are just waiting for the right sponsor to come along!”
Where to visit this August
Sussex Prairie Gardens
Paul & Pauline McBride,
Sussex Prairie Garden
Morlands Farm, Wheatsheaf Road (B2116),
near Henfield, West Sussex, BN5 9AT
Opening until the 14th October
1pm to 5pm open every afternoon apart from Tuesdays.
Plus events coming up at the Prairie gardens:
17th-27th Indian Summer Bizarre- 5 big marquees
2nd Sept Unusual Plant and Garden Fair- specialised nurseries
What to do in August
Obviously keep up the watering in this sustained hot weather, especially with plants in pots and new plants.
Top up the mulch to retain moisture and keep weeds down
Keep pinching out your tomatoes and sowing new rills of lettace, radishes and spinach
Time to prune the bigger shrubs that have just finished flowering like Wygelia, Philadelpus, and Sprirea- cut out the old flowering wood back to new growth that next year’s flowers will bloom from
Mow your lawn on a higher setting now to keep moisture in the grass to help mitigate against summer browning in dry spells
Apply a nitrogen feed if Red Thread fungus is taking over your lawn
Have a bit of a rest- things slow down in the garden now, and so can you.