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.