28: Autumn 2011

Author: Paul & Pauline McBride

Sussex Prairies

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Sussex Prairies
Paul & Pauline McBride

Pauline and I had been working in Luxembourg for around five years when we hatched the plan to turn part of our small farm in West Sussex into a Prairie, or Naturalistic, garden. Pauline had been born and brought up on Morlands Farm, which her parents had bought in 1959. Tony, Pauline’s father had farmed beef cattle, hay crops and over wintered sheep from Romney Marsh, known as Kent Keepers. In 2005, Tony decided to retire, and sold the farm land to Pauline and me.

Our job in Luxembourg was in many ways the perfect job. We worked for the billionaire chairman of a multinational media company. Pauline’s job was to run what was in effect a small country house hotel, for the exclusive use of the chairman, his family and visiting directors of the group companies. Her duties included ensuring that the owner’s private jets were in the right place at the right time. One of her great joys was her role as mistress of the chairman’s pack of six Basset hounds, who roamed free on the ten acre garden.

My role was to create a garden from farmland, with little or no direction from the owner, and an unlimited budget! A dream situation for any garden designer, indeed. In addition to this, I was also responsible for the chairman’s car collection of four Ferraris, an Aston Martin, Bentley, AC Cobra and others, which naturally needed road testing on occasion! Pauline and I had been fans of Piet Oudolf, and the New Wave Perennial movement, for some years. We were therefore delighted when our employer saw an article in the Sunday Times about him, and suggested that we ask him to design a large border to complement the garden we had created to date. The next two years saw us working at the foot of the master, so to speak! This period working with and learning from Piet reinforced our love of the Prairie style. We resolved to create our own Prairie garden in England, at Morlands Farm. We had, in any case, been looking for a way for the two of us to earn a living from our 32 acres, a near impossibility using traditional agricultural methods.

Our planning began in 2007. The first decision was whether to create a formal or an informal garden. We opted for a formal structure, using huge arced beds, 10 metres wide. One of our main objectives was to ensure that our visitors could get “up close and personal,” with the plants! In the end, we plumped for a formal layout, with an informal arrangement of plant groups, criss-crossed by a network of small paths. Having decided on the outline plan, Pauline and I marked out the design on the ground using a tape measure and ranging poles. We now had the shapes of the beds marked out and could begin the first of three applications of Round Up to the six acre site. Summer 2007 saw Nick Bailey, our local genius with a JCB, install land drains at 10 metre intervals. He also dug three ponds within one of the beds, skilfully pulling aside the topsoil from the two most westerly beds, and placing the spoil to form two mounds.

During November/December 2007, we produced AO sized scale plans of each bed. We had around 600 different varieties of plants to allocate positions to. After much discussion and many late nights, we had our detailed scale plans, and were finally able to translate the scale plans onto numbers on an Excel spreadsheet. This gave us our final requirements – 30 000 plants! Having worked for many years in the unusual position of having an unlimited budget, we were now working in the reverse position. We planned to propagate all the plants ourselves, in 9 cm pots. The garden in Luxembourg was by now 5 years old, and most of the plants could happily be divided for propagation. There was one other major issue to be addressed – how to plant 30 000 plants without paying an army of planters! Pauline hit upon the solution, and came up with the idea of inviting all our friends and relatives to Sussex for a planting party – “The Big Plant.” Invitations were sent out along with our Christmas cards. We were both surprised and delighted to have around 40 acceptances!

So, there we were, with 40 planters pledged to help during the first fortnight of May, all we needed to do was to prepare the ground for planting. January 2008 was cold and dry and I was able to plough all the beds lightly. The next step was to spread 5000 tonnes of compost onto the ploughed land. We are fortunate to be within half a mile of Olus, who provided us with soil association certified compost, free of charge. Unfortunately, February, March and April were very wet and I was unable to tow my 5 tonne trailers of compost over the heavy clay soil, without causing major damage. As May drew nearer, and the land refused to dry out, we grew more and more nervous that our friends would arrive and none of the beds would be ready for planting. As a last resort we hired in two 4 wheel drive dumper trucks, which were light and manoeuvrable. The compost was spread, rotovated in, and finally we had the longed for ‘fine tilth’ we needed for our amateur planters to work on.

May 2008 was blisteringly hot in our corner of England. The sort of weather we had come to know as ‘Été caniculaire’ during our time in Luxembourg, the dog days of summer, in May! Our friends arrived, staying in tents, caravans, local B&B’s and on the floor of our old farm house. Temperatures reached 35°C, and dehydration of plants and planters alike became a real concern. However, planting continued apace, with Pauline and I laying out the plants for the army of planters following in our wake. One problem, we found, was simply being able to locate a particular plant. To find one tray amongst 1500 was taking far too long. To solve the problem, we called a temporary planting halt, while all hands laid the plants out in alphabetical order.

After planting, each bed was well watered, and a thick layer of mulch applied, a process which took nearly as long as planting! I believe that this 6” layer of mulch is really the only way that weeds can be controlled, in a garden of this size, with such a small staff – two of us. By the end of May both planting and mulching was complete. One of the joys of herbaceous perennials is their speed of establishment and sheer value for money. By mid August 2008 the garden was already a riot of colour with grasses topping 6 foot!

The garden is now entering its second winter and we received our first paying visitors in May 2009, the Gertruda Garden Club from Moscow! We opened the garden on two occasions this year for the NGS and had over 800 visitors in one day. The garden has been photographed by our friend Marianne Majerus, and thanks to her efforts has already been featured in the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, Country Life and the Financial Times. We have also demolished and rebuilt our farm house, which is now open and operating as a luxury Bed & Breakfast establishment. It has been a hard couple of years and unlikely to ease off much in the foreseeable future, but when we hear the gasps of amazement from our visitors, as they cross the bridge and see the Prairie Garden for the first time, it really makes it all worthwhile.

If you would like to visit the garden, either as an individual, or as part of a group, please contact us on 01273 495 902 or via our web site,

First published in the Sussex Group Newsletter, Spring 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 28.
© Copyright for this article: Paul & Pauline McBride

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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