Last week I went on a truly amazing High Summer Garden Tour to West Sussex, designed and delivered by garden lover and specialist Sarah Raven and her colleague Melanie…

First stop was the Sussex Prairie Garden at Henfield – Paul and Pauline McBride’s eight-acre plot of sublime prairie-style planting.

The McBrides spent two years working with prairie ‘god’ Piet Oudolf on the continent. When they came back to England they put into practice much of what they had learnt, from scratch at their home at Morlands Farm.

Large swathes of flowering plants and grasses now sway side by side throughout the plot. Thousands of tiny plants were put in by a gaggle of friends that had been offered a great party the night before planting by their cash-strapped hosts.

Free flowing generous groupings of plants give impact and structure but in a delicate and romantic way.

Here are three grasses that particularly caught my eye:

In search of garden grasses

Sporobolus heterolepsis, also known as prairie dropseed, is scented – which is unusual for grasses.

Panicum virgatum, Heavy Metal, has amazing dark leaves and beautiful deep purple flower heads.

Molinia caerulea. Edith Dudszus is planted in four or five rectangular beds down the centre of the garden, to add contrast to the large and curvy borders. This is edged with Allium Summer Beauty, an unusual rhizomatous allium which bees and butterflies love but aphids hate!

The heavens opened and did not close for the rest of the day. I am sure the Collector Earl’s Garden at Arundel Castle is magnificent on a less drenching sort of day – I am afraid we did not see it at its best.

Day 2
Parham House at Pulbrough has been standing since 1577 and has many distinguished paintings and fine needlework. Most of our time was spent out in the fine gardens with head gardener Tom Brown.

He gardens on the ‘edge of chaos’ and talked about how the plants in the borders have to ‘talk’ to the walls, in the way they step down and flow from back to foreground.

In the vegetable/flower garden I particularly liked the idea of a ‘Grazing Garden.” This was a couple of patches bordered by a low hedge, perhaps three or four metres square, closely planted with single varieties of vegetable and flowers. The idea is that on a Saturday morning the gardener can go and pick just enough to eat and display for the weekend. No rows or gluts here – just enough to see you through Saturday and Sunday.

In search of garden grasses

The other aspect I really liked was the brick and grass maze. Designed to reflect the pattern marked out on the headboard of a 16th century bed in the house – the maze is made from 5,500 bricks, is a quarter of mile long and great fun to follow to the centre!

In search of garden grasses

Parsonage Farm is a private garden, which has been lovingly developed over the past few decades by David Thomas. He has turned a dull, flat and lifeless farmyard into a bold and beautiful garden, with many levels or interest.

He has followed the 18th century style known as Ferme Ornée – which loosened the restrictions of the formal gardens of the preceding century and offers ‘gardens with farming’ at its edges.

Close to the house the design is rigid and formal with topiary and small fountains in rectangular ponds. From here follows a series of bigger beds frothing with planting in a palette running from apricot to orange to crimson and scarlet and then back down the colour scale.

In search of garden grasses

Criss-crossing the garden are long avenues and walks – one almost a quarter of a mile from bench to beautiful ancient wood statue.

Walking down one of these leads to a gate and a field where sheep sometimes roam. And there at the very end of the field is the surprise – almost a joke. For a herd of bronze giraffes are grazing the bushes!A portent perhaps, of what we would see the next day.

In search of garden grasses

At another end of the garden is a grass amphitheatre – a stunning performance space – guarded by one serious and one happy, three metre stone mask. The levels had been created from the spoil from the somewhat significant pond that had been dug out at the front of the house.

In search of garden grasses

So natural and green.  So peaceful, yet uplifting.

It was very hard for me to tear myself away…

The final day
I have been to Knepp estate before. Charlie and Izzy Burrell are, like me, members of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association – and sell wonderful 100% grass-fed meat to their camping customers.

In the delightful Cow Barn (beautifully beamed with turquoise sofas!) – Izzy told us there was no birdsong on the 3,200-acre estate when the Grade 3 land (muddy and wet in winter and not the best for growing crops) was being ‘farmed’ conventionally.

Now, 16 years after being allowed to ‘rewild’, Knepp is a wildlife hotspot – with all five species of UK owl, 13 out of the 18 UK bats, breeding pairs of turtledoves and nightingales and a favoured site for purple emperor butterflies, and many other creatures too.

In search of garden grasses

As well as leaving the vegetation to do its own thing, grazing pressure is applied from Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, fallow and red deer and a herd of Tamworth pigs. The way they graze and browse – all differently, allows them to check the progress of the scrubby shrubbery.

In search of garden grasses

We went on safari and saw toads, slowworms, buzzards, pigs, a herd of female deer sunbathing and a herd of magnificent stags, as well as beautiful, glossy, healthy cows and calves – all looking a picture and all living as nature intended.

Could this be a future for some other Grade 3 land? Perhaps adjoining farmers could link re-wilded areas to produce the scale needed to make this type of system work?

The Burrells have recently been visited by high profile politicians and civil servants and Charlie is hopeful that, post Brexit, farmers could be offered long term rewards for taking a similar and significant step in future.

Read my first blog here.

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