10 ways to get a naturalistic prairie look in your garden

Prairie-style planting — long-lived perennials and ornamental grasses planted in large swaths akin to a meadow — is one of the strongest and most fashionable movements in gardening right now. Inspired by the flowers of natural prairies, it’s a look full of movement, light and color. It mimics nature in all its layers of planting, adding extra interest through the seasons.

Because many perennials are fast-growing, this type of planting can make a quick impact with lots of color and texture. It also suits gardens big and small. If you like this look, here are some ideas to think about for prime planting season this fall.

Choose plants for their ability to grow well together. Low maintenance also is key, so select noninvasive perennials that don’t need staking.

Focus on grasses. The many varieties of ornamental grasses add immeasurably to this style of planting. Grasses are one of the most common plant types in nature, so they underpin that natural meadow effect. They play a supporting role through the growing season for colorful perennials, and in the autumn, they come into their own with beautiful glowing reds, yellows and golds. They also have a wide variety of striking luminescent flower heads. Most aren’t fussy about soil conditions and are easy to maintain, just needing cutting back or tidying in the spring before they start growing again.

Buy in bulk. We all make the mistake of going to the garden center or nursery and purchasing one of each plant that catches our eye. But no matter how small your garden, think in multiples. To achieve a prairie-style space, you need to plant sweeps of perennials in broad brushstrokes.

Be repetitive. Whether your garden is big or small, you can adapt this style to work for your space. Repetition is key, with a simple palette that repeats in a rhythmic way or threads through the design. Nature rarely dots one of this and one of that, but rather tends toward abundance, scattering seeds or plants generously in an area.

Vary flower shapes. Once you start to look, you realize how different flowers are — not only in color but also in shape. Some flowers, such as foxgloves and salvias, are like spires. Some, including many allium varieties, are round. There are button shapes (Knautia, Astrantia), daisies and umbrellas, as well as some flowers that are fluffy and frothy. Contrasting one shape with another adds interest and variety. The simpler your color palette, the more you can appreciate these differences in form. Some shapes look good grouped together, others dotted among the planting. If in doubt, always ask yourself how they would look in their natural habitat, and take your inspiration from that.

Plan for all seasons. Layer plants for seasonal interest. By winter and early spring, many perennials and grasses have died back, so make sure you have color in the early months of the year by planting lots of bulbs. Crocuses, snowdrops, anemones, daffodils and tulips will pop up one after the other from January until late April, by which time the perennials and grasses will have started to appear and take up where the bulbs left off.

Follow nature. Nature’s not that neat; plants don’t keep to themselves, but rather weave in and out of others, growing up through them and around them — so encourage yours to do the same. The trick is to choose some plants that are very fine-stemmed and insubstantial, which will contrast well with solid types like daisies.

Add alliums. Light grasses, such as Nassella tenuissima, allow bulbs and other perennials to push up between them and even lend support. Alliums come in lots of colors, from purple to blue to white. There are even some yellow ones. Some (Allium cristophii, A. schubertii) have giant heads, which add fun and interest to a design. Others are small but add pinpoints of color when dotted through the grasses (A. sphaerocephalon is a good example of this type). The larger ones can be expensive but are a worthwhile addition to the perennial mix.

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Work in a shrub or two. Shrubs can also be added to the mix, but less is definitely more. They should have lots to offer in terms of interest, particularly in the foliage. Shrubs with good autumn color, berries or hips work really well with this style of planting. These include the many euonymus varieties and ‘Laciniata’ staghorn sumac, because of its relaxed growth habit.

Create a winter wonderland. One of the pleasures of opting for prairie-style planting is learning to appreciate the beauty of winter foliage and seed heads. Often augmented by winter frost or snow, they can give a garden a lovely atmosphere and add a sculptural quality. Preserving the seed heads of flowers also provides feeding areas for birds during the cold winter months, plus nesting spots for insects to hibernate.

Connect with your surroundings. If you’re lucky enough to live in the countryside, this naturalized planting style works really well with the colors of the landscape around it. It therefore brings a little of the great outdoors into your garden and allows your patch to fit more softly into its surroundings.