Residential PPN Spring 2008 Newsletter
Prairie Style Gardening: European Roots and American Adaptation
by Sieglinde Anderson, ASLA
The work of Dutch horticulturalist and designer Piet Oudolf is showing up all over. His renovated personal garden in the Netherlands is highlighted in the January/ February issue of GARDEN DESIGN (“lawn to lush” – page 55). What gives this “prairie” style garden strength, especially during the gray winter months, is the use of mature tightly-clipped hedges in combination with grasses.

I wonder how many designers eager to emulate this style are aware of the fact that it was pioneered by German nurseryman Karl Foerster during the middle of the last century? First published in l957 and reprinted repeatedly, Karl Foerster’s Einzug der Graeser und Farne in die Gaerten (loosely translated “The moving in of grasses and ferns into the garden”), is, to this day, the best book on grasses for gardens. Unfortunately, as far as I know, this book has not been translated into English. With the exception of recent hybrids, all the grasses we use today are described by Forester in great detail, unburdened by scientific language. Instead, we are told where the grass is native (shown by small maps), what conditions it grows under, and how to emulate those conditions in gardens. Included are enthusiastic suggestions for companion plants as well as maintenance.

The resulting philosophy of creating planting schemes for gardens where all plants grown should be compatible perennials, non-invasive, fully hardy, long-lived and resistant to diseases and pests is as valid today as it was in the l950s. Piet Oudolf selects plants only after many years of observation and trial, and skillfully combines the basic shapes of plate, spear and ball, in the legacy of Foerster.

Naturalistic Planting in the United States The myth that prairie style gardens are mostly maintenance free is still held by many garden designers. While it is true that this style of planting—in tune with soil conditions and climate—performs better and requires less maintenance, a thorough knowledge of plant behavior is still essential. American growing conditions vary widely from coast to coast. Also, for the most part, our summers are hotter and our winters are often snowless and colder than the European climates that Forester knew. In many regions, we have extremes of temperatures, a long growing season, as well as early warm spring weather. The combination of these factors can result in weaker and lush growth that may require staking. Finally, only some of our states have hoar frost, which really brings out the winter beauty of grasses and perennials left standing.

The revolution toward naturalistic landscaping in American gardening begun by Wolfgang Ohme and James Van Sweden and carried forward by Piet Oudolf and others is only just starting to take off. Books such as Perennials and Their Garden Habitats, by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, can greatly aid in plant selection and take the place of Karl Foerster’s writings for English speaking designers.

Still, I wonder: how effective is this naturalistic style of planting for year-round interest and beauty without the structure of hedges, trees and shrubs that are highlighted in Piet Oudolf’s designs? I would love to hear from others on this question.

Sieglinde Anderson, ASLA, a landscape architect in Fairview, North Carolina, and can be reached at

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