The Prairie Inspired Garden
In 2010, I was able to make a much anticipated trip to New York, New York, for a family wedding event. Tops on my list of places to see while I was there of course was the High Line, the internationally famous public garden, said to be “the most Instagrammed place on Earth”.
The High Line is exactly that, an old abandoned elevated industrial rail line on Manhattan’s west side that runs along the Hudson piers. As the rail sat unused for about 30 years, a self-seeded prairie-like landscape developed and became the subject of a photographer Joel Sternfeld’s creative interests. He spent a year photographing the many parts of the line, capturing a collection of images that would later be used to sell the idea of transitioning the rail to a linear public park.
A cracker jack team of designers and horticulturists was assembled to further develop the idea, including the very capable Netherlands based planting designer Piet Oudolf – he was most instrumental in choosing plant approaches and plant lists. The result is a garden that’s a hybrid between a natural prairie garden the English border garden. Oudolf used native prairie grasses and perennial wildflowers but he included many many horticultural selections of native species, and also some species that are not native to the Americas. Even the non native species look at home amongst the prairie plant drifts. The planting lists for the gardens are long, and made up mostly of herbs and grasses, with some plantings of small trees and shrubs, and vines and bulbs.
The design emphasis of the High Line is on low input, drought tolerant species that save on resources, something to consider when your garden is a mile and a half long.
The design approach is rather simple, using mass plantings of species that contrast in color, texture, and form – species that are tough and hold their own in the landscape. By using so many different species, the designers planned for an unfolding landscape, month to month, much like the continuous interest a natural area relict prairie would provide. The result is simplistic, but rather beautiful, any time of the year. The substance of the garden design and its overall horticultural appeal is significant. It is said that 5 million people visit the High Line each year.
I visited during the month of January so I saw the gardens at their weakest. I was still very much impressed with them. I could still identify most of the plants.
Mr. Oudolf is a much sought after garden designer famous for his work with grasses and perennials. He promotes the perennial plant garden and points out that winter-frosted perennials and grasses have character, too.
He has designed the High Line gardens to mimic the American prairie, with grasses as bones of the garden, the cloth that the garden color is woven into. The gardens are perfectly attractive to pollinator species including butterflies, skippers, dragonflies, native bees and wasps, honeybees, and so forth.
Speaking from my perspective, grasses are used much like the evergreen shrub is in an English border garden; as a back drop for color, as a contrasting element – a whispy feature that highlights and refracts light, enhances and contrasts colors and textures. Grasses come in many shapes, sizes, and textures, but grasses are colorful, too. Switch grass may not be just right for every garden but there is no denying this plant has a bold presence. It starts off as a medium textured foliage emerging in late spring, subtle and unassuming. By mid-summer, its knee high – dense and robust. By fall, it is chest high, mostly rounded in form, and starting to produce its fine textured seed panicles, which crown the tops of the foliage mass with a smokey-mist effect. When first frost comes, the green linear leaves turn a clear crisp tan color, a very dramatic change that carries through the winter. Four different cultivars of Switch grass are used in the High Line gardens. Little Bluestem grass, a shorter, more vertically inclined plant is used extensively through the plantings. It has a contrasting blue foliage in summer and turns a reddish-ochre color in winter. The very popular and extraordinarily stylish Calamagrostus X Karl Foerster is another among the 30 different grasses that are used in the project altogether. Over 150 species of perennials accompany the grasses.
The practicality in using grasses is their sheer ability to sustain themselves with little or no care. Plant them and pretty much forget about them, though they generally need cutting back in late winter just before the new growth starts, generally in April or May. Grasses enable you to have twice as much garden with half as much care. If you’re planting the right grasses, they will likely last longer than you will – they’ll out live you!
Not all grasses are created equally. Some ecotypes (regionally local genetic strains) do not adapt permanently and can decline and fade from the landscape over a few years time. Try to source seed collected locally so the plants are more able to survive in our unique Gulf-influenced environmental extremes. After all, its best to be successful the first time around – unless of course you like failure.
The prairie inspired garden is becoming more accepted in horticultural circles. With so many species adaptable to this idea, the design possibilities are practically limitless.
Common Prairie Plants for Gardening in Louisiana
Little Bluestem grass
Yellow Indian grass
Split Beard Bluestem grass
Elliot’s Indian grass
Narrow Leafed Bluestem
Winter Bent grass
Purple Silky Scale grass
Eastern Gamma grass
Big Bluestem grass
Bushy Bluestem grass
Barrens Silky Aster
Where to Visit Prairie Gardens in the U.S
University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Ws.
North Carolina Botanical Garden, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.
Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University, Picayune, Ms.
Where to Visit Prairie Gardens in Louisiana
Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society, Eunice, La
Cajun Prairie Gardens, Eunice, La
Allen Acres B and B, Pitkin, La
St Landry Parish Visitor’s Center, Opelousas, La
Duralde Prairie Restoration, Duralde, La
Caroline Dorman Nature Preserve
LSU AgCenter Research and Gardens, Hammond, La
City of Mandeville Wildflower Conservation Area
City of Hammond – Chappapeela Park, Hammond, La
City of Monroe – Kiroli Park, Monroe, La
City of Covington – Blue Swamp Creek Nature Trail, Covington, La
Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology, University of Lafayette, Lafayette, La
Hamilton Hall, University of Lafayette, Lafayette, La
City Of New Iberia, Mr. Al (the Live Oak) Prairie, New Iberia, La
*the list provided is focused on Louisiana natives – consider other endemics native to your locale when developing your own garden lists – though many of the species listed here are generalists and not site specific
For more information on educational classes regarding native grasses and wildflower identification and culture, contact Dr. Charles M. Allen at email@example.com
* this article written for December issue of Louisiana State Horticulture Society
cool lawn color from Oxalis at a New Orleans’ Lake Lawn funeral home