Sunday, 6 May 2012

It was one of the ideas that brought me here; furiously stoking my curiousity and igniting my passion for design. A Prairie Garden, in Provence?

Prairie Gardens take their inspiration, obviously, from the Great Plains of North America - huge swathes of grassland full of a range of flowers Europeans could, until relatively recently, mostly only dream about. These landscapes inspired the ‘New Perennials’ movement that has emerged in Northern Europe over the last twenty years. It’s naturalistic, a far freer, a more sustainable look for the 21st century - compared to traditional hidebound notions of colour-themed mixed borders, staked, straightjacketed; over-fed and overwatered. Here you pick a limited palette of appropriate plants, flowering perennials and grasses, set them out en masse, stand back and watch the spectacle unfold.*

Yes the setting does help...
So far so easy, right? It’s now a tried and tested formula that has been proven time and time again... in northern Europe.
So how to translate it to a setting within sight of the Mediterranean, (i.e. drought from June to September), with no irrigation? Many classic prairie plants like Echinacea are drought tolerant but not really drought loving. We need plants that will actively thrive. Time to look at the ground beneath our feet..
The wild plants locally gave me some great clues - wild verbascums, poppies and sages all thrive on this dry alkaline soil and have cultivated (or cultivable) relatives that are worth looking at. The dreaded plantains, even, have a cultivated cousin - Plantago major ‘Rubrifolia’ - a fantastic foliage plant the colour of red wine which will make a great contrast to the tawny colours of late-season grasses. And it doesn’t even mind being trodden on occasionally - what a plant!

So - time to get weeding. Hoiking out these rambunctious country cousins (and a hell of a lot of thistles). It took two of us three whole days of pulling and digging to get the site clear.
My huge pile of thistles looking more like rather forked parsnips!
For orientation the Bay of Cannes is visible on the horizon

Getting a bit obsessed at the end of day three....
Some of the roots were as long (and nearly as thick) as my forearm
Beautiful drooping panicles of wild oats (Avena nuda) on a lower terrace.
It's a shame they're so invasive...
I'm going to use their much better-behaved cousins, the Stipa tribe.

*by using plants in bulk you maximise their impact, it’s incredible how much more you can get from them... don’t feed, don’t water, don’t stake, just let them do their thing and appreciate them for what they are.

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