Prairie borders take their inspiration from the vast grassland and horizons of the American plains. This natural style of design is known as Prairie planting. It uses bold blocks of plants and colours. Allowing groups to self seed and colonize. Rich in pollen for insects and following a very natural flow. This guide will show you just how easy it is to achieve in the smallest of gardens.

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?

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 borders

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.

Heleniums in a prairie border

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.

Grasses in a light prairie border

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!

Garden Ninja in a prairie border

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!

Summary

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 TweetFacebook or Instagram me!  Why not subscribe to my Youtube channel for even more garden design hints and tips?

Happy Gardening!

2 thoughts on “Prairie Borders; How to design & plant for a small garden

  1. Linda Casper says:

    Thanks. I’m going to give it a try. I always thought that acres of land were needed!

    1. lee says:

      Hi Linda, Many people think that. However even in a tiny border you can get the prairie look. Do post some pictures if you plant one! All the best. Lee

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