Gardens on the prairie


When we think about prairie planting schemes we tend to look at the leaders in this area of design for inspiration and ideas. Designers such as Piet Oudulf, Nigel Dunnett and Dan Pearson have all showed it can be achievable to recreate the feel of the Native American prairies in a small space. Once established these planting schemes can provide long periods of interest. Require less watering and are drought resilient once established after their first two seasons. Also providing a rich steady nectar source for butterflies and bees .
Here are a few key rules and principles to stick to when designing a prairies planting scheme:

• use less plant species and use them on mass to create effect
• Always plant in clumps of odd numbers. Threes and fives seems to work well
• use 90degree and 45 degree angles to give the feeling of more space in a tiny garden
• Think of planting in 4 different layers. Layer one; large focal point trees and boundary hedges. Layer two; large shrubs for the backs of borders. Layer three; blocks of perennials and grasses. Layer four; annuals for infill and evergreen ground cover plants.
• use planting to draw the eye line to key garden features such as Statues, Pergolas , Arbours
• use plant with as long a flowering period as possible
• use white flowering plants in shady corners to help reflect light
• Fill in gaps with annuals such as Nicotiana mutabilis, Cosmos etc. this will help in the first season before the planting reaches maturity
• Use plants for textures as well as colours for contrast. Some good examples are : Stachys lanata, bronze fennel, Stipa tenuissima,
• Balancing seasonality ; try to balance the seasons so there is always some interest in the garden
• Cut back perennials and grasses in February instead of autumn. This way you will enjoy the dried seeds heads of the grasses and flowers over winter. Which can look quite magical in the morning mists of late autumn and winter.

A few planting combinations that work really well for late summer colour and autumn interest:

Helenium ‘Moerheim beauty’ / kniphofia Caulescens / Panicum ‘Prairie sky’ / Carex ‘Prairie fire ‘
Scabious caucasica/ Gaura ‘whirling butterflies’ / Artemisia ‘Powis castle’
Achillea ‘Moonshine’ / Salvia Caradonna/ Stipa gigantea / Physocarpus ‘Diablo’/ Achillea ‘Terrocotta’
Knautia macedonica/ Allium giganteum / Imperata ‘Red baron’ / Pennisteum rubrum
Agapanthus ‘Twister / Sidalcea ‘Little Princess’/ Carex ‘Everest’
Perovskia ‘Blue spire’ / Echinops ‘Vietchii Blue’ / Eryngium ‘Blue hobbit’ / Festuca Glauca
Helictotrichon sempivirens / Calamagrostic ‘Overdam’ / Sisyrinchium striatum / Euphorbia amydaloides ‘Purpurea’
Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ / Persicaria Pink Elephant / Scabious Columbaria

Gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’

Scabiosa Caucasia

Physocarpus Diablo

Places to visit for inspiration and to pick up ideas for your garden at home:

-Great Dixter gardens in Northiam Rye, made famous by plantsman Christopher Lloyd and designed by famous architect Edn Lutyens.
-The Barbican Planting in London by Nigel Dunnett. The planting shows how plants can be used in a low maintenance naturalistic planting scheme using minimum water and providing long periods of spring , summer and autum interest.
-Sussex Prairie Garden in Sussex henfield. The garden is made up of large mixed borders of bold blocks of perennials and grasses on mass.

Happy gardening !!

Adam at Alexandra Palace 

Prairie Borders; How to design & plant for a small garden

So you may be wondering what exactly is prairie planting and why is it now so fashionable? Well, the world-famous Piet Oudolf was one of the forerunners in bringing prairie borders to the masses. His creative designs featuring informal shapes block planted with the same species or colour have become his trademark. If you’re still scratching your head, and you don’t want to open a google sinkhole in searching through millions of pictures, then think of those huge herbaceous borders you see at the RHS gardens and stately homes as a starting point or watch the video below of my prairie border guide.

Prairie borders are a beautiful informal planting style that can work in a variety of garden sizes. They are also relatively fuss-free and can bring a sense of calm to a garden. If you’re wanting to see whether prairie planting is for you, then read on!

  • What is prairie planting?
  • Where in the garden to plant your prairie border
  • How to plant a prairie border
  • Best plants for a prairie border
  • Grass choices for prairie planting
  • Herbaceous ideas for prairie borders
  • Maintenance of a herbaceous prairie border

What is Prairie Planting?

The easiest way to think of a prairie border is to look at their origins in the USA. If you visualise being slap bang in the middle of the map of the USA then you’d be on the Great Plains of America. Vast distances that centuries ago were covered in swathes of grasses, flowers and other flora. That is before mankind came along to start carving it up for infrastructure. Where nature created soft blocks of colour and form as plants self-seeded colonizing large areas. In prairie planting, you’re aiming to try and create this natural flow of plants. You’re using a distinct set of plants and grasses. Forget a little of this and some of that. In prairie borders, you’re restricting the number of species and increasing the amount you plant.

Prairie planting is based on the natural Great Plains of the USA & grasslands

Where to position prairie borders

Prairie planting requires pretty much full sun due to the types of plants usually used. That is not to say that some dappled shade is a no go. However, if you’re wanting the height from grasses such as Miscanthus or Calamagrostis these will only grow properly in a sunny sight. If not they will either just put on a mass of low growing foliage or start to lean out towards the light source.

Prairie border planting is usually full sun

If you’re dealing with shade then a different planting palette will be required, I have discussed a variety of shade-loving plants here. This is where you may be using a prairie style layout but having to switch plant focus onto other foliage heavy planting instead.

How to plant a prairie border

  1. Choose your planting palette. Now in a small garden to get the mass effect you’re going to be maybe looking at 7-10 plant species maximum. In a larger herbaceous border, you may choose 20 or 30 plant species. It all depends on the size. Watching my video above may help you get some idea of how many your garden maybe need as a comparison.
  2. Prepare the soil by removing any weeds and debris. If it not been cultivated in a while or has compaction you will need to dig it over. For a prairie border, the soil will need to be free draining. If you’re dealing with heavy clay soil you may need to rethink your plans. That or dig in plenty of organic matter to break it up. By their very origin prairie plants such as grasses and herbaceous plants such as Echinaceas require free draining soil.
  3. Lay out your plants in blocks or drifts. Grouping them in a minimum of 3 or 5 to start with. Depending on their ultimate growth ensure there is enough space so they don’t strangle each other. Remember: This is mass effect planting, so even if it feels odd putting so many together in one group, trust me it will work!
  4. Layer your border by using taller plants such as the grasses at the back and the smaller specimens at the front. Don’t be put off from breaking this rule every now and then especially if you have space. Then you can create intrigue as to ‘whats behind there?’.
  5. Group colours together and then repeat them. You can happily use different cultivars of the same species to use slightly different hues of the same colour. I have demonstrated this with the Achillea by using Achillea ‘Terracotta’ and ‘Walther Funke’ together. This can take your planting detail to the next level!
  6. Add some height with a tree or shrub. Prairie borders don’t just need to be herbaceous. Why not add a small tree or shrub to give some proportion and scale to your border. Fastigiate forms of trees are excellent at bringing height without taking up too much border space. They also provide structure during the months when the garden has been cut back, usually March to April.

Best Plants for a Prairie Border

There’s no real hard and fast rules for prairie border plants. The best way to choose plants is to go back to visualising what the Great Plains are made up of. Large areas of grasses and self-seeded herbaceous plants rich with pollen. These plants have an airy almost translucent quality about them. No dense covering or blocked out light often experienced with a border of evergreen shrubs. Each area of planting will have a see-through nature allowing other layers to be seen.

See how light and airy the planting is, you can see the layers between plants

These layers are also going to have multiple heights. So you’re going to need a mix of height from the grasses and mass from the herbaceous plants. Here are a few of the best herbaceous plants for a prairie border. I’ve not covered annuals or other seed varieties as I find these are harder for beginners to work with.

Grasses for a prairie border

  • Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foester’
  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning light’
  • Stipa gigantea
  • Molinia caerulea
  • Deschampsia caespitosa
  • Pennisetum oriental ‘Karly Rose’
  • Carex

Herbaceous flowering prairie plants

  • Echinacea
  • Achillea
  • Heleniums (Sneezeweed)
  • Phlox
  • Monarda (Smells of Earl Grey tea!)
  • Asters (Daisy-like flowers)
  • Rudbeckia
  • Salvia (Spires and spikey forms)
  • Verbascum
  • Veronicastrum

Why prairie planting is low maintenance

Prairie planting is a great choice if you’re short on time and don’t want to be deadheading and weeding every other night. As prairie borders are planted on mass a number of the plants should support themselves. I tend to find the flowering interest also lasts longer. This is because some plants will bloom slightly earlier than others in their flowering window.

As prairie planting is made up of herbaceous perennials they come back year after year. This means you can leave them after they have finished flowering through the winter months. The grasses will crisp up giving a real texture to the border and the herbaceous plants will leave seed heads which are an excellent food source for birds and wildlife. Yes, a few bits may look a bit tatty, but you can simply snip these out or simply go with the flow of nature!

You maybe surprised how low fuss Prairie borders are!

When to cut back prairie borders

Maintenance could not be easier with this method. The only month of the year where any real effort is concerned in February. February you may say! Yes! This is the perfect time to cut things right back to the ground. The grasses can be cut back with a pair of sharp shears. I love my Niwaki Japanese sheers for this super sharp and fast. It’s the same maintenance for the herbaceous perennials, simply cutting them down to the ground in late winter.

I tend to have a few specimens like Carex which don’t require any real maintenance, this is because they keep some structure during the winter time. Also if you have followed my guidance on trees and potential prairie shrubs in the video above, you will know exactly why I have included these!


Prairie style planting can be both high impact and relatively low maintenance in a garden. Providing you have free draining soil which gets a fair share of sunlight you’re set to create a super dramatic border. You have an exciting array of plant species to choose from, some are direct descendants of the American Prairie borders themselves, such as Carex. If you can resist the urge to choose too many species! A Prairie border can provide food for bees and insects throughout the summer along with a dazzling display of colour. Even during the winter months the border still delivers drama with its skeleton stems and dried seed heads. Imagine the photo opportunities whilst neighbouring gardens are looking bleak and barren!

Have you planted a Prairie border, got pictures or advice you would like to share with the Garden Ninja community? Then let me know on social media where you can Tweet, Facebook or Instagram me! Why not subscribe to my Youtube channel for even more garden design hints and tips?

Happy Gardening!

10 Grasses for Prairie-Style Gardens

Prairie Fillers

Native grasses make up the biggest plant component of true prairies. Cool-season grasses grow in spring and fall, while warm-season grasses wait for summer’s heat before they begin growing. Grasses unfailingly appreciate sun, but some tolerate shade. These garden backbones are tough, and the native ones offer shelter to pollinators, but for a tidier look, cut them back in late winter. Here, 10 grasses that make great neighbors in the prairie- or meadow-style garden.

Feather Reed Grass

Photo by Doreen Wynja/Monrovia

(Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’)

A classic that should be standard in gardens, this cool-season grass wakes up early in spring and flowers with pink patterned plumes in early summer; those plumes age to a wheat color that lasts through fall into winter, barring heavy snow. Upright ‘Karl Foerster’ blooms with pinkish-purple flowers. It grows up to 5 feet high and 30 inches wide in Zones 5 to 9.

Big Bluestem

Photo by Plants Noveau/Monrovia

(Andropogon gerardii ‘Red October’)

The major grass of the Midwest prairie, big bluestem has a dramatic presence. A warm-season grass, its tall stems of three-fingered flowers emerge to float above foliage late in the growing season. To go along with its classically upright form, the cultivar ‘Red October’ has scarlet foliage in fall after frost. It grows up to 6 feet high and 3 feet wide in Zones 4 to 9.

Zebra Grass

Photo by DEA/C.DELU/Contributor/GettyImages

(Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’)

Widely planted, warm-season miscanthus grasses make fantastic columnar accents in any landscape, including a meadow- or prairie-style garden. Zebra grass is an older cultivar that features horizontal bands of gold across its leaves and contrasting pink flowers in fall. It grows up to 8 feet high and 6 feet wide in Zones 5 to 9.

Purple Moor Grass

Photo by Visions Pictures/Getty Images

(Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Sky Racer’)

If it’s living kinetic sculpture you’re looking for in your garden, purple moor grass is for you. The cool-season grass emerges in early spring but doesn’t put on a show until midsummer, when tall rays of translucent flowers appear, shimmering in the slightest breeze. This upright grass also works well in damp soil, unlike many grasses, which can flop. Grows up to 8 feet high and 4 feet wide in Zones 5 to 8.

Little Bluestem

Photo by Courtesy of Wayside

(Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’)

A mounding grass to fill in the middle ground, little bluestem’s fine, steely foliage provides a one-two punch of color and texture. Though the species can be floppy in gardens, the cultivar ‘Standing Ovation’ is bred to stand tall in full sun with sandy soil. Grows up to 4 feet high and 18 inches wide in Zones 3 to 8.

Pink Hair Grass

Photo by Annie Wells/Contributor/Getty Images

(Muhlenbergia capillaris)

Wispy in all ways, pink hair grass is understated in leaf but spectacular in bloom. Its velvety magenta plumes of flower appear late in the summer, approaching fall. These turn to tan and can be left through winter as an accent on this warm-season mounding grass. Grows up to 3 feet high and wide in Zones 5 to 9.

Korean Feather Grass

Photo by Visions Pictures/Getty Images

(Calamagrostis brachytricha)

A warm-season grass that wakes up early in the growing season, Korean feather grass is notable in the prairie plant palette in that it thrives even in part shade. The flowers of this mounding grass appear over a long period, from mid- to late summer; they start out white, then age to pink and finally to the color of wheat, attractive even in winter. Grows up to 4 feet high and 3 feet wide in Zones 4 to 9.

Palm Sedge

Photo by <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Plant Delights Nursery, Inc</a>

(Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’)

A tough Midwestern native, palm sedge grows well in sun to part shade and sports leaves like streamers in whorls around a central stem. A low grower that proves wonderful things can come in small packages, this plant is actually a sedge, visually very similar to grasses. ‘Oehme’ adds gold-edged foliage to the mix. Grows up to 2 feet high and wide in Zones 4 to 8.

Fountain Grass

Photo by Doreen Wynja/Getty Images

(Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’)

‘Hameln’ fountain grass is a versatile, warm-season groundcover that’s a good fit in more naturalistic landscapes. Its oaten cottontails of bloom appear in late summer and act as an excellent foil for fall foliage. Grows up to 30 inches high and wide in Zones 5 to 9.

Hair Grass

Photo by Monrovia

(Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’)

A native that deserves much wider use, cool-season hair grass greets spring with leafy green. In July, its low-growing foliage nearly disappears in a translucent veil of apple-green flowers that age to gold. ‘Goldtau’ thrives even in light shade. Grows up to 2 feet high and 30 inches wide in Zones 4 to 9.

Above: Blue Grama Grass replaces turf to create an airy meadow garden designed by landscape architect Scott Lewis. Photograph by Mathew Millman via Scott Lewis.

Sumac Trees

Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

“The common sumac, which was formerly despised by farmers, is now much planted about Middle Western homes because of its gorgeous autumnal colors,” writes Wilhelm Miller. “The sumac is a ‘red badge of courage’ which is often considered a symbol of the indomitable western spirit.”

Native Plants

Above: Photograph courtesy of Adam Woodruff & Associates. See more of Woodruff’s work in Considered Design Awards 2014: Best Professional Landscape.

On a busy corner lot in Springfield, Illinois, garden designer Adam Woodruff replaced his own front lawn with a modern interpretation of a cottage garden. The mix of low-maintenance perennials, ornamental grasses, and shrubs creates a colorful mini meadow and persuades pedestrians to stay on the sidewalk instead of taking a shortcut across his yard.

Woodruff included a number of grasses in the mix, including Sesleria autumnalis, Sporobolus heterolepis, Spodiopogon sibiricus, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, and Molinia litoralis ˜Transparent’.


Above: Photograph by Thomas Quine via Flickr.

“Echinaceas are a quintessential prairie flower and also incorporate quite well into more contained, urban gardens,” writes our contributor Kier Holmes in Gardening 101: Echinacea.

Energy-Saving Trees

Above: In Kansas, a weaver’s studio has a foundation made of local limestone. Photograph via Khanna Schultz. For more of this project, see A Prairie-Style Loom House for Weaver Elizabeth Eakins.

A deciduous grove of trees, leafy in summer, keeps the interior cool. In winter, the leafless trees allow sunlight in to warm the space.


Above: Photograph by Marilena via Flickr.

Among Jensen’s favorite prairie and river bank wildflowers were: wild Phlox paniculata, purple Iris versicolor (collected from the banks of the Des Plaines river), and swamp rose mallows.

N.B.: What is your favorite style of garden? Steal ideas from more of ours:

  • Garden Design: Learning to Plant the Piet Oudolf Way.
  • 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from California.
  • How to Garden Like a Frenchwoman: 10 Ideas to Steal from a Paris Balcony.
  • 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from the Pilgrims.

Looking to add some vertical appeal to your landscape? Why not incorporate prairie grasses? Native prairie grasses once covered a much larger portion of Manitoba before being removed for farming and land development. Prairie grasses are perennial plants; they are able to survive our long, cold winters and come back strong and lush during the growing season. You can also find prairie grasses near shallow water bodies such as a marshes and swales, as they are an essential part of the natural water filtration cycle.

Karl Foerster

There are two types of grasses that bloom at different times of the season. Cool Season Grasses begin to grow during springtime while temperatures are still cool, and become dormant, as temperatures get warmer. These grasses typically produce seeds in June. On the other hand, warm season grasses grow in June and stay vibrant throughout the summer. When considering grasses, it is important to include a mix of both warm and cool season varieties to keep your project looking lush. Whether you are planting an abundance of grasses, or using them as accent features, these grasses will add visual interest to any project.

Some of our favourite ornamental and low-maintenance grasses include: Karl Foerster, Miscanthus Flame Grass, and Big Bluestem. If you want to include a taste of Manitoba’s prairie heritage in your gardening project, we highly recommend using these rustic, hardy grasses.

Miscanthus Flame Grass

You can find a variety of different native or non-native prairie grasses at your local nurseries. Check out Jensen’s Nursery, Aubin Nurseries, Shelmerdine Garden Centre, Lacoste Garden Centre, and Prairie Originals for more information and selection!

*Title Image – Big Bluestem


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