Flowering PlantsGarden Projects

Garden diary 2020 – transforming a large space into a perennial paradise.

Perennial planting by piet oudolf

Perennial filed planting oudolf

As I mentioned in my mail the week before last, I have a lot planned for the garden this year and just to prove it wasn’t a load of old waffle I include some photos taken over the weekend of the largest part of the project.

For the last five years I had left about half of my field to it’s own devices to see what happened. Everything went well for a while with meadowsweet, vetch and rosebay willowherb spreading nicely until the grass took over and choked it all up. A flowering meadow really needs to be cut back every year otherwise the grass will form a thick thatch before the area eventually returns to scrub. I have some plans for this part of the filed so I figured it was time to take action.

Stripping sow from meadow

As chance would have it, an old friend from my landscaping days was clearing drains on a neighbour’s land so I asked him to bring his machine over and give me a hand. I confess I am uncomfortable about tearing off the grass cover and whatever else came with it but I do feel the end result will be a better, more diverse habitat in the long run. The other options were to cut and cover with black plastic for the season (a lot of plastic) or spray it with weedkiller neither of which I fancied doing.

Anyway, the upshot of the whole thing is I now have an acre of clear ground which has been raked through with the teeth of the bucket and is as clean a blank canvas as anyone could wish for.

Piet oudolf meadow planting

What’s the plan?
Unimaginative bore that I am, I have decided to jump on the Piet Oudolf bandwagon and embrace the ‘new perennial planting style’. Famous for the High Line in New York, the glasshouse borders at RHS Wisley and other high profile projects, Piet Oudolf is best known for creating vast drifts of meticulously chosen grasses and perennials that look like they appeared by chance.

My goal is to make this part of the garden more bio diverse and wildlife friendly so this style of planting certainly fits the bill. Oudolf describes his method as “a complicated layering of seasonality, energy, endurance and reward – both before, during and after flowering”. This all sounds great, I only wish he was here to give me a hand with it.

New perennial style piet oudolf

Mr. Oudolf has written a number of books and is not secretive about his plant choices or how he arranges them but the problem I have is my soil is not suitable for many of his favourite plants. While the ‘New Perennial Style’ can be applied to any soil type it more commonly refers to plants, or at least relatives of plants, native to prairie or steppe landscapes. These areas have a very different soil profile to mine.

The other issue is the weather. The prairies enjoy a Continental climate with long, hot summers and cold winters which give a long flowering season and a dry cold that helps preserve off season plant structure. Rainfall and short Summers are the problem in the UK and Ireland (I live in the wettest part) and result in shorter flowering seasons and, what my garden angel refers to as ‘the flop’ (when plants are flattened by Winter rain).

Peaty bog planting winter

But all is not lost. As we’ve said this method of mixing flowering perennials can be applied to any soil type, we just need to pick the right plants. There are plenty of wild plants that grow in my local area that shrug off whatever the season throws at them and happily tuck their roots into damp, acidic soil.

The photo above is the peat bog around the corner where I walk the dog and while my garden is not quite as extreme it does have a peaty soil with a low pH of around 5.5 (7 is neutral). I don’t know (yet) the names of grasses that grow here but as the photo testifies they are ‘flop’ resistant. What grows wild nearby is a great place to start and will give me valuable information on the best suited plant types. While I may not choose the wild version of a particular species there will be a good chance their cultivated relative will be just as happy in the same surroundings.

Knapweed and summer grasses

Depending on the season, the dog and myself have seen a wide variety of pretty plants including knapweed (above), wild orchids, ragged robin, bog cotton, bluebells, red campion, purple heathers and minty green lichens. The local trees include silver and downy birch, Scots pine, alder and rowan; the whole lot growing happily without any intervention.

So, there are my cues. My final list will include some wildflower seed but I need to pay attention to competition, season of interest, height, shape and other variables which will result in a mix of wild plants and cultivated plants with a wild character. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a plan, if anyone has any suggestions I would love to hear them.

That’s it for now, I’ll be back with more next week.



  1. Gerry

    Hi Andrew,

    I too have taken inspiration from Mr Oudolf. However, I have done it in 2 large raised beds as I have a smaller garden to you and also want to grow some veg, have a play area, a dog! etc. Last year was the first year of blossom and I was quite happy, even if many of the plants I grew from seed (bee balm, knautia, and echinachea) didn’t quite make it to flower. However, I was happy with the drumstick alliums and the verbena bonariensis which did flower.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Gerry
      That all sounds great. I love verbena, glad to hear it flowered. Did you also grow it from seed? Yes, I will also be covering ‘mini Oudolf’ in raised beds for smaller gardens, loads of fun to be had!

  2. Gerry

    Hi Andrew,

    I was lucky enough to get 3 verbena cuttings a few years ago which, from my own cuttings, I have managed to turn into about 30 plants. It looks really well with stipa tenuissima which is in the beds. I have a photo of what ‘year 1’ looked like but I don’t think there is a way of uploading it here. Really interested in how your planting turns out. Please keep us posted!


    1. Andrew

      Hi Gerry

      That sounds great, I love how we can make multiple plants from a few cuttings, I am really looking forward to getting into all that as my area is so big I will never be able to afford to fill it with nursery stock. I would love to see photos in year one and would love to include them, with your permission, in a future post? If you would like to send me photos my email is andrew@quickcrop.ie. Yes, stipa tenuissima is beautiful, I expect they look great together. Thanks for getting in touch Gerry, I will be posting again about my garden soon and will be talking about growing from perennials from seed. BTW, as per your previous post many perennials will only flower in year two, so don’t worry about your bee balm, knautia, and echinachea, they are likely to do the business for you this year. As a rule of thumb perennials that flower in yr 1 tend to be short lived and may flowwer well in year 2 but will then start to go downhill.

  3. Mary O Donoghue

    Hi, I live in the South West where I have 3 seperate lawns. I intended turning one into a wild flower garden using perennial and grasses. It is has a very clay soil and water logged for most of the winter. Is it possible to plant perennials and grasses that would grow in these conditions.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Mary
      Yes, it is possible to choose perennials for this site, you would just need to be a little more selective. There are a number of grasses that will tollerate wet conditions, moor grass is one. Plants like irises who like wet feet will also do well, you can also look at wild plants or relatives of wild plants like meadowsweet, buttercup or ox eye daisy. I will be looking at this in more detail in our blog in the coming weeks so there will be a lot of information relevant to your garden coming up. The bottom line is there is a plant selection to suit every site so yes, you can create an attractive wild flower garden in a heavy clay soil. I would advise you to do a basic pH test (to see if it’s acid or alkaline) which will be very helpful to narrow down plant choices. I hope this helps. Andrew

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