Meadows’, ‘Steppes’ and ‘Prairies’
New planting styles and pollinators

Marc Carlton  Forum Trustee
James Hitchmough’s Steppe-Prairie at Wisley. Tall yellow 'daisies' are Silphium species.


Over the last two decades, large-scale naturalistic plantings have become part of the gardening vocabulary. This trend was initially influenced by the Dutch garden designers Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen, their books ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’ (2000) and ‘Planting the Natural Garden' (2003) setting out their philosophy and methods. More recently the work Professor James Hitchmough, (head of the Dept of Landscape Architecture at Sheffield University) has given us a more experimental take on this theme. He has created large areas of naturalistic planting primarily from seed, being very innovative in his plant choices.  Some of his best-known work is at the Olympic Park in East London.

These naturalistic plantings get variously labelled ‘meadows’, ‘steppes’ or ‘prairies’, but in all cases these terms are just analogies with those wild communities, because we lack a horticultural vocabulary to accurately describe these plantings. ‘Wildflower spaces’, another term in use, is again only approximate because in some cases the plants used are cultivars, not wild forms.

Naturalism as an aesthetic is the common factor, but that does not necessarily equate with ‘nature-friendly’ or ‘wildlife-friendly’.  Put bluntly, just because it looks ‘wild’, will wildlife like it? Over a few warm and sunny days in August 2017 I visited a series of naturalistic plantings to check them out for myself, and see if they were attracting pollinators. Here is my travelogue.

24 August: RHS Wisley Garden, Surrey

I have always thought that much of Wisley Garden is too over-manicured, and my visit today confirms my opinion. A ghastly new ‘exotic garden’ of banana plants, tree ferns and palm trees gives completely the wrong message to gardeners as far as I’m concerned.  A walk around Wisley reveals large numbers of honeybees (not wildlife to me, as they are a domestic species) but not as many other pollinators as I would have hoped, and I see only one butterfly.

My destination is the area behind the Millennium Conservatory, where you will find James Hitchmough’s large scale naturalistic ‘Steppe-Prairie’ and South African plantings. Hitchmough’s Steppe-Prairie (photo above) is now 10 years old. Height is given by Silphium species, hugely tall yellow daisies from central USA prairies. Unfortunately these have flopped around in recent wet and windy weather, reducing their architectural effect. The rest of this planting is fairly green at this time, but showing promise of many Asters (Symphyotrichum species) to come later.   

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Marc Carlton visited a series of garden ‘borders’, ‘meadows’, ‘steppes’ and ‘prairies’ in late August 2017. How did they compare?
Nearby is the South African Meadow (photo above), sown later, in 2013. Not very successful to my eyes (neither aesthetically nor in terms of providing forage for pollinators) and dominated by Kniphophias, which do very little for wildlife. The presence of a large tree may have made this a difficult site to establish this kind of planting.

Adjacent is a separate area of ‘prairie planting’ not by James Hitchmough and evidently from transplants rather than seeds, as it looks more ‘designed’. With more emphasis on European plants, this looks more pleasing to the eye and seems to be supporting a better range of pollinators.



A large patch of Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisia pratensis) is a winner here. This late summer wild flower is easy to grow and deserves to be in every garden.  It is one of those wildlife gardening ‘must-haves’ like Wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare) that seem to attract every kind of insect pollinator going. Some of the central or southern European plants such as Eryngiums and Phlomis have already finished flowering, but they will have good autumn and winter skeletons and do not flop.
25 August: Parham, West Sussex

Off to Parham, a large private garden near Pulborough in Sussex, recommended to me by a wildlife gardening friend.  No ‘prairies’, but a more traditional template.

Long herbaceous borders, closely planted, but including plenty of near-natives and some wild flowers, and by no means over-manicured. Some weeds are allowed, and some flowers are left to meld together, self-seed, and support each other.
So what is their secret?  Well, the fact that this garden lies in the middle of a large historic deer park which has never seen modern intensive agriculture and is an SSI surely helps. It maybe that the garden's organic management helps. Add to this the seamless inclusion of native and near-native European wild flowers into the borders, and the relaxed maintenance style. There you have it.

26 August: The Olympic Park, London

To The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London. The approach walk through the concrete desert of the Stratford City mega-mall and then across acres of tarmac is daunting to any visitor hoping to see wildlife, and surely enough to put off any wildlife as well! 

Mercifully the other side of the park is part of the River Lea corridor which forms a more welcoming approach through which wildlife could migrate. The Olympic Park has extensive sown plantings famously created by James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett  for the 2012 Olympics. So how are they looking now?

The result looks beautiful, and not lifeless like so many grand herbaceous borders. The borders are simply humming with insects, with plenty of butterflies, hoverflies and other flies.  Dragonflies and hornets swoop above the borders hunting insect prey, a sure sign that this garden really is working for biodiversity.
The most visually striking of the sown ornamental plantings that I see on this visit is a large patch of North American woodland-edge species, in full bloom (photo above).  Heucheras and Rudbeckias seem in their element. Visually this is very successful, and clearly a good resource for bumblebees.

The South African planting nearby, now six years old, seems to be declining, becoming dominated by a grass that looks like Deschampsia flexuosa, Wavy Hair Grass. Aesthetically satisfying at this moment are the herbaceous plantings (not from seed) around some central seating and play areas, and these are the current focus of pollinator activity, again mainly common, generalist bumblebees.
Now off towards the north of the park where there are many artificially sown native wildflower meadows, now some five or six years old. Most of these have gone over, as our native meadow flora flowers and goes to seed early in the season.  These meadow areas are evidently successful, as I see the leaves and seed heads of a very varied mix of perennial meadow flowers among the grasses.

A June visit will be needed to have a good look at these wildflower meadows, which cover a large area and are different to each other in character.  Clearly a number of different cutting and maintenance regimes are being tried and it is interesting to compare the results.  Some of the wildflower meadows look as if they have had a late spring or early summer cut, which will have delayed flowering and extended the season for foraging insects.  This looks like a technique well worth trying elsewhere.

Below - uncut meadow
Above - cut meadow   Below - meadow cut in the early season
27 August: Oxford Botanic Garden

Back to the OBG to re-visit James Hitchmough’s Merton borders, which I visited in June as part of the WLGF Meadow’s conference. Again those huge Silphium daisies have flopped around and some of them look a mess. Chunky Kniphophia and the thistle-like Berkheya are much in evidence in the South African areas, neither of them attracting much in the way of wild pollinators. The invasive hybrid Canadian Goldenrod, denizen of railway tracks and wasteland, seems to have infiltrated one part of the garden and has not been weeded out by the gardeners; I wonder if that is deliberate, or a mistake. (This does not look like it is the species of Solidago that James included in the original seed mix.) 




As at Wisley, the European or Eurasian planting (photo below) looks to be the most settled and visually consistent, With the central European Eryngium planum happily seeding itself around in the company of Wild Marjoram, Ladies Bedstraw, Musk Mallow and the Spanish Oat Grass Stipa gigantea. The wild ranges of all these Eurasian species overlap, although all of these would never be found together in one place.


Everything changes in nature, nothing is permanent. Plantings like this if left to their own devices will constantly evolve and change in appearance.  My prediction is that in the long term the Eurasian planting will prove the most sustainable here, and it is well-adapted to cope with climate change.

Will nature prove me wrong? I make a mental note to come back in ten years’ time and write another blog.