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Breaking Free

Paul and Pauline McBride’s acclaimed naturalistic planting at the eight-acre Sussex
Prairie Garden is an inspiring demonstration of this wild, loose style of gardening,
proving that it’s eminently possible here in the UK, even on heavy Wealden clay.

The English Garden Magazine, October 2022

For many of our gardens, autumn signals a slowing down, a gradual slide into lazy senescence. Not so for Sussex Prairies. Come September and October, this unique Wes-Sussex garden is reaching its dizzying peak.

For nearly 30 years Paul and Pauline McBride have been designing and making gardens all over the world. Sussex Prairies, conceived with their own British twist on the Dutch wave New Perennial movement, is their signature creation. The 8-acre garden sits in the wider landscape of 32-acres of farmland, formerly owned and farmed by Pauline’s parents. On entering, visitors are greeted – perhaps surprisingly given the garden’s moniker – by tropical planting, complete with towering bananas, cannas and tetrapanax. So far, so unexpected. Then, you step out from the canopy into the open and there they are, the prairie borders, with their vast drifts of echinaceas and rudbeckias, veronicastrums and sanguisorbas, set in a sea of swaying grasses. There’s also a cutting garden, a potager vegetable plot, and a fully-fledged nursery. Not to mention the charming tea rooms, gallery, rusty bison, art installations and resident pigs!

This ambitious project was dreamed up when Paul and Pauline were creating and managing a garden in Luxembourg at the turn of the millennium. For the centrepiece, they commissioned celebrated Dutch plantsman and designer Piet Oudolf. This was in many ways the catalyst for Sussex Prairies. ‘The whole thing was really inspired by working with Piet,’ Paul tells me, ‘learning about the plants, visiting his nursery.’ Pauline agrees: ‘it was a turning point for us, and it got us thinking about how we could come back here to Sussex and make our own garden.’

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In 2007 they began clearing the site in earnest. Sussex Prairies lies on a seam of thick Wealden clay, so preparation was key. Weeds were removed. Land drains were laid. The thin, light brown ‘imitation of topsoil’ was ploughed shallowly to avoid bringing up the clay, and tons and tons of compost was incorporated. At the same time trees and hedges (mainly hornbeam) were planted to add structure and height.

Not that Graham wanted to be tied down by this new, naturalistic, prairie-style planting. “I’ve always maintained that this climate in England is so fantastic for plants, so why limit yourself to one style? I think the best thing to say about Marchants is that it has always been eclectic.”

The design of the main prairie borders and paths was meticulously mapped out. Paul’s original drawings are incredibly detailed, again inspired by working with Piet and seeing how he planned his gardens. The design plays out in a series of interlocking arcs and curves, which when viewed from above, describe the form of a nautilus shell. ‘It was important for us to have that strong structural shape and then we could really let loose with the planting,’ says Pauline.

Transferring the designs onto site was a decidedly analogue affair. ‘It was quite a feat,’ Pauline recalls, ‘just us two, a lot of string, a lot of sticks and a lot of shouting, I seem to remember.’

The couple had accumulated some 30,000 plants during their ten-year European tenure, so they knew they’d need help getting them in the ground. ‘We sent a Christmas card out to all our friends, saying we were throwing a party,’ laughs Pauline. ‘They weren’t all gardeners by any stretch of the imagination, so we needed an incentive.’ Planting took place over two weeks in May 2008. ‘People came with tents and caravans and stayed in B&Bs,’ says Paul, ‘we had about 40 people altogether. It was amazing.’ Once planting was complete, it was a case of mulching heavily, irrigating, and waiting for everything to bulk up and knit together.

Some fifteen years on and Sussex Prairies has fully matured. And though this style of naturalistic planting is relatively self-sustaining (there’s little need for staking or deadheading here), on this scale it still takes some serious management. In March and April, it’s mulching time. Then there’s the constant chasing back and editing, watering and edging, which keeps the team busy throughout the summer. Once autumn’s out, the borders are left standing all winter, creating a ‘black and white garden’ as Paul calls it, all skeletal stems and beautiful seed heads. Then, in early February, it’s all burned to the ground in the traditional manner of prairie management, and the cycle begins again.

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When they’re not engaged in these activities the Prairies team are busy propagating thousands of plants for the nursery (the garden is treated as one giant stock bed for this purpose). Many of the more prolific plants – the persicarias, sanguisorbas, molinias, veronicastrums – readily self-seed, hybridize and produce viable offspring. ‘We’ve got quite a few now that look strong and stable, some we’ve had as part of the Wisley trials,’ explains Paul. ‘For example, all the new sanguisorbas we’ve discovered, like ‘Apache’, ‘Cherokee’, ‘Iroquois’, ‘Cheyenne’ and ‘Navajo’. These were all nursed here; we didn’t actively cross them, but we are always on the lookout for new selections.’ Paul is particularly proud of a robust echinacea hybrid, aptly named ‘Sussex Prairies Seedling’, which started life as the Oudolf introduction E. ‘Rubinglow’. ‘It just self-seeds everywhere and comes up every year, forming great meadows,’ he tells me.

From the outset Paul and Pauline wanted their garden to be truly immersive. They envisaged people wandering freely among the beds, experiencing the plants up close and personal. ‘At the time this really wasn’t encouraged when you visited gardens,’ says Pauline, ‘you were supposed to walk around them, to observe respectfully from the sidelines, but we wanted the total opposite: we wanted to invite our visitors in, to allow them to get amongst the plants and the bees and the butterflies.’

Part of the joy of visiting Sussex Prairies in its full autumn glory is exactly this: the sense of being enveloped by the garden. As you navigate your way through the ever-narrowing paths, plants rearing up in front of you, others teetering above, a delirious kind of disorientation sets in. For Pauline, this is key to the Sussex Prairies experience: ‘Getting lost in a garden is wonderful because it’s all about the promise of what’s to come.’ Autumn is the apotheosis of this. ‘It’s a fabulous time,’ says Pauline, ‘because you’ve got the height and the structure and the architecture.’

‘And, of course, the flowers too,’ adds Paul, ‘the later flowering perennials are really doing their thing now – the asters, the heleniums, the echinaceas, the vernonias, the veronicastrums, the solidagos. And you’ve got the big grasses in flower too – the molinias and miscanthus, the panicums and stipas –, which adds a whole other dimension. For my mind, this is really when the garden reaches its crescendo.’

I couldn’t agree more: autumn may be a harbinger of change, of nights drawing in and summer’s sting losing its venom, but right here, right now, in this particular field in England, it’s showtime.  

Matches made in heaven
Paul and Pauline like to see themselves as horticultural matchmakers, creating their ‘dream partners’, small micro-communities of plants which they combine in repeat groupings throughout the garden. Here are some of their favourite combos:

Tall and Stately
Persicaria polymorpha, with its creamy-white, frothy plumes, is teamed up to great effect with Veronicastrum ‘Temptation’ (purple-rose racemes), Sanguisorba ‘Red Thunder’ (ruby-red buttons), and the statuesque Miscanthus sinensis ‘Professor Richard Hansen’.

Dark and Dusky

Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’, with its lime-green leaves and lavender-rose spikes, makes the perfect foil for the moody tones of Actaea simplex (atropurpurea group) ‘James Compton’ (all olive-black foliage and cream-white plumes) and Astrantia major ‘Claret’, with its near black stems and dark maroon blooms.

Rich and Ripe

Together, the red blades of the ornamental blood grass Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’ and the pink-carmine flower heads of the ever-popular Sedum matrona bring out the best in the gorgeous Hemerocallis ‘Troubled Sleep’, with its purple sepals and chartreuse-lime throat.

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© 2019 Diana Jazwinksi

AUTUMN INTEREST at Sussex Prairies
Try these perennials and grasses for superb late-season colour and texture

The straightforward pink-flowered
species is ever reliable – or seek out Paul and Pauline’s ‘Sussex Prairie Seedling

Give salvias a good mulch over winter if you live in a colder part of the country.

Grow this pink-tinged pennisetum in a sunny spot with well-drained soil.

Spires of hollyhock-like flowers grow on a perennial, rust-resistant plant.

The spiky, quilled petals make this tall, clump-forming rudbeckia stand out.

An upright and vigorous New England aster in vivid magenta pink.

As well as its misty froth of flowers, this panicum is known for the autumn colour of its leaves: a rich burgundy red.

A hardy annual producing arching stems of vibrant pink flowers up to 2m tall; it will gently self-seed itself around.

The stems of this aster are smothered in pale mauve flowers all autumn.

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