Planting your own prairie

A few years ago half of our flat, two-acre section was neglected. Well, more accurately, ignored. It was behind a post and rail fence and since we never seemed to get around to planting it, it simply sat there and grew grass. It was mown every now and then, but ultimately even that fell by the wayside.

So eventually it grew into a waving, golden meadow of glorious metre-high grass and we absolutely loved it.

It was innovative, attractive and maintenance-free.

Then, one day we came home from work and discovered that our neighbour, who’d been mowing the grass verge outside our place, had decided we were far too busy to deal with it and needed a hand. He whizzed in on his ride-on mower and whacked down the grass in an act of kindness that had me biting my tongue until it bled.

These days a “prairie” or wild flower meadow would probably be recognised as such. oass planting to one level or another has been around for a while and right now it’s “on trend”, as they say in the fashion business.

It’s especially admired in the US, where the oidwest was once home to a massive ocean of grassland – the prairie. This undulating sea of plants contained a stunning mix of grasses and wild flowers, and many gardeners there are keen to develop modern prairie gardens in their own backyards.

There’s also a style known as the “New American Garden”, where free-spirited ornamental grasses are arranged with drifts of perennials and bulbs. Suggestive of the prairie, these gardens contain native prairie plants, as well as others matched to local growing conditions.

Pack planting lots of one kind of plant has many advantages. It makes an instant visual impact, smothers weeds and you can often get a better deal if you buy 100 of the same thing. It also saves you having to think about what plant combinations will best work in the space and it enables you to apply the same growing technique to a large area instead of buying half a dozen different fertilisers and bug sprays for each type of plant.

It can’t, of course, go on forever, unless you live on the prairie, so at some point it has to be merged into whatever is happening nearby.

Perhaps the easiest way to make this type of planting look natural and work with neighbouring areas of the garden is to use other landscape elements that belong to it. If you’re using grasses or tussock, then rocks and old timber can be used to define the edges, and agricultural relics can provide focal points within the planted area.

obviously, grasses are ideal for this type of garden and in New Zealand we’re spoiled for choice. They’re not always easy to grow where the weather is hot and wet, but there are varieties that will manage if you care for them well. When you feel you’ve planted enough of them, they’ll play nicely with a variety of other plants. The tussock and lupin landscapes of the Lindis Pass are a case in point.

In a domestic space, though, transitions can be more gentle. An area of grasses might be bordered by a white chip or hokey pokey-coloured stone path, which in turn could be edged with nice local rocks.

on the other hand, drift planting is a style that does allow immediate transitions.

You can choose three or four varieties and plant each in a swathe a couple of metres wide. This works really well on slopes and lends itself to a series of plants in similar colours, for example blue tussock, lavender and beautiful dietes.

In any area of mass planting, planning is the key to success.

It’s not a style that lends itself to random choices and it depends on the gardener’s self-discipline.

If you think you might succumb to the need to plant a magnolia in the middle of a tussock patch, the prairie style is probably not for you.

Planting on banks

Banks are a planting challenge. If you don’t get it right, the soil tumbles down the slope, plants fall over from lack of support, rain washes all the plants away and mulch gathers at the bottom, providing the perfect growing conditions for weeds.

Sadly, there isn’t a list of plants guaranteed to fix your bank, because all banks are different and it’s never a case of “one-size-fits-all”. And planting swathes of two or three varieties isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If it isn’t yours, there are alternatives.

Grasses are always top of the list, especially Carex Frosted Curls and Caramel Curls. Scatter through some nice, spiky lancewoods and bold flaxes and you have a dramatic designer look.

If you prefer something a little softer, climbing rata and rengarenga (Arthropodium cirratum) can be used on a bank. Peppermint geranium is an example of an excellent ground cover, with scented silver foliage and small white flowers.

Another characteristic of banks is that they’re often composed largely of clay.

If yours is one of these, try astelia, broom, manuka, tea tree, puka, rock lily, rewa rewa, flax, rengarenga and muehlenbeckia.

When all else fails, there’s the bank favourite, Grevillea Bronze Rambler, with its red blooms, and its relative Grevillea Gaudichaudi, a real ground-hugger.

Related stories

Get The Australian Woman’s Weekly NZ home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.