Laura Ingalls Wilder was one of my very favourite authors when I was a child, so I have long wanted to visit the Sussex Prairie Garden. Of course, the prairie in the name refers to the naturalistic style of planting, although I was pleased to see a herd of metal buffalo.
My children are increasingly suspicious of garden visits as they get older, but as soon as we paid our entrance fee (£20 for a family ticket: two adults and three children) and approached the main garden via a lush, tropical ‘Kiwi Garden’ inspired by the owners’ trips to New Zealand, with towering umbrella fronds of banana trees, they started to enjoy themselves. They were especially pleased to find two rare breed pigs trotting around in the mud under an oak wood.
When we stepped into the wide open expanse of the main garden, it took my breath away. Eight acres have been ingeniously planted with romantic swathes of grasses and herbaceous perennials by Paul and Pauline McBride. It comes as little surprise to learn they worked in Luxembourg with Piet Oudolf, the great Dutch gardener who pioneered the ‘New Perennial’ movement.
The beds are laid out in a spiral form, interrupted by a path through the middle, which brings to mind the many spiral forms in nature, or the double helix of the structure of DNA. Smaller paths wind through the middle of the beds, allowing visitors to get right up close to the swishy, sensual plants and grasses. The children thought it was like a jungle and were in clover.
Pink cones of Echinacea, cheery yellow Rudbeckia and fiery tails of Persicaria amplexicaulis are all planted in generous splashes, so that you can really appreciate the plants in all the glory of their colour, shape and texture. As the McBrides have deliberately chosen plants which resemble their wild cousins, the colours are muted, but no less beautiful especially in the autumn afternoon sunlight. There are Asters ranging from deep purple to pale lilac and the dark bobbing heads of Sanguisorba officinalis.
I cannot get enough of the grasses, which gently sway in the breeze. If you stand still and close your eyes, it is almost like listening to the sound of the sea. There are several different varieties of fluffy Miscanthus, delicate Panicum virgatum, tall Molinia and pale gold Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.
There is also a smaller cutting garden, with brighter colours including fiery orange Tithonia, dahlias in a rainbow palette and pink and white Cosmos.
One of the delights of the garden is the way it makes use of sculpture. There is something interesting to look at in nearly every bed, which draws the eye and enhances the planting, as well as making a great focal point for photos, whether it is Totemic heads, a wire owl or an ingenious clock made out of lots of different bits and pieces. There is a strong element of fun, such as a fence decorated with a flock of white birds made from plastic milk cartons.
The Naturalistic style which Paul and Pauline have used is sustainable in several ways. Firstly, it is wildlife friendly, providing food and a sheltering habitat for creatures ranging from butterflies and grasshoppers, to toads , newts and voles. Secondly, the planting is sympathetic to the natural landscape, with smaller flower heads in more subtle shades. Thirdly, once established a garden like this is low maintenance, requiring only a minimal watering regime together with a generous mulch.
Last but not least, we head to the tearoom. It is still warm enough to sit outside in early October (we are visiting in the garden’s penultimate open weekend of the year), where we enjoy squishy homemade cakes and pots of tea. Nextdoor is the nursery, where I cannot resist buying several plants to try to recreate a little slice of the prairie in our own garden.