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This time of year, what is known as ‘prairie planting' comes into its own. A fine example is here in Sussex at the Sussex Prairie Gardens near Henfield (free to RHS members), and well worth a visit if you are seeking inspiration. Prairies, once forming about one fifth of the Great Plains in America, can be formed in diverse conditions, but it is often the plants that thrive in the driest conditions that we associate with this type of planting.
The steely blue foliage of switch grass (Panicum), with their delicate, beaded flowers and later fiery hues, when planted en-masse, add a softening haze to the garden. Varieties ‘Heavy Metal' or ‘Northwind' are most effective. Pennisetum, or fountain grass is more tactile and fun – think Basil Brush's tail and you have it! The variety ‘Hameln' or the gorgeous ‘Little Bunny' are attractive, shorter varieties. For a blaze of pinky-red, go for Pennisetum ‘Fireworks' or the darker purple of ‘Summer Samba'. These two both like a well-drained soil and full sun, and benefit from winter protection, either with a mulch or by moving to a frost free area.
Miscanthus (Japanese silver grass) is from the other side of the world, and is both dramatic and beautiful. ‘Malepartus' grows to 2.2m and has flush, silky red panicles in autumn. A dwarf form (1.2m) is ‘Red Chief', which makes an impressive clump, turning silvery during winter. For a stronger red, try Imperata ‘Red Baron' (Japanese Blood Grass), which likes a moister position, reaching just 38cm.
What compliments these hues is of course, the strong yellows of the daisy-like Rudbeckias. Loved by bees, the variety ‘Goldsturm' will brighten your borders and provide seedhead interest over winter too. Subtler hues include ‘Cappuccino'. Let's not forget coneflower (Echinacea), also from N. America. Although, if like me you are having a surfeit of tomatoes, the variety ‘Tomato Soup' might just seem a step too far!
Plant Manager, Tates of Sussex