Last week we paid a visit to a client in Staffordshire. While we were in the area, decided to pay a visit to Trentham Gardens, near Stoke on Trent, where we were on the lookout for some prairie-style planting.

First, a potted history: the Trentham Estate has seen more than its fair share of turmoil. First mentioned in the Doomsday Book, the Estate has been built upon, demolished, traded, expanded, abandoned and transformed many times over. It was once home to a priory until King Henry VIII got hold of it. The gardens were landscaped many times, including for a twenty year period by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Trentham Hall itself was enlarged and redesigned by many architects. Sadly, the industrial growth of the surrounding Potteries region took its toll on the River Trent, filling the river and the lake with sewage. By 1905 the pollution became unbearable, and its owners abandoned the site.

Fast forward to 1996, when property development company St Modwen and German investor Willi Reitz bought the Estate. They pledged to restore both the gardens and Hall to their former glory.

History lesson over. Obviously, it is the gardens that interest us. Our undoubted highlights were the sections called ‘Rivers of Grass’ and the ‘Floral Labyrinth’, which are perennial planting beds laid out in 2004 by Piet Ooudolf, who is widely considered to be Europe’s leading plantsperson.


Prairie-style naturalistic planting, by Piet Ooudolf at Trentham Gardens

Prairie-style planting

Ooudolf’s prairie-style planting has been in the horticultural headlines for some time now. It is a soft, naturalistic style where plants are allowed to seed and group in great clumps, to give the effect of a meadow or prairie. Ornamental grasses are planted in-between to give a soft, hazy, gentle feel. This planting style works just as well in country gardens as in the city, where the contrast softens the hard lines of the buildings. Ooudolf’s most famous scheme is probably The High Line, an abandoned elevated section of New York’s railroad, which he has transformed into a 1.5-mile garden in his trademark style.

At Trentham, his vast swathes of grasses and perennials make for an easy to maintain, textural experience. You can’t help but run your hands through the grasses as you pass. The wind rustling the plants creates a lovely calming sound, coupled with the hum of the bees and insects that cover lots of the flowering plants, such as Eupatorium, Persicaria and Echinacea.

You might think this style of planting is only attractive in the late summer when the grasses and summer perennials are in full flower.

But no, in the spring when the plants are growing up there is space to add tulips and alliums. A good scheme will include earlier flowering perennials as well as those that have their best display from August onwards.

With this type of planting, you should leave the seed heads on the plants as they die down. The seeds are great feed for birds such as Goldfinches, and some will be scattered to increase the stocks of plants for next year’s display.

And even after the seed has gone, the stems of the plants and grasses look beautiful when left to catch the frost in winter.


Prairie-style naturalistic planting, by Piet Ooudolf at Trentham Gardens

Aside from the perennial grass areas, there is also plenty to do and see at Trentham at any time of year. The Italianate Garden, restored by garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith, is also beautiful but far more structured. There is a vast lake to walk around, forests and trails and even recreations of some show gardens from Chelsea. There are food outlets, and kids play areas, with plenty of space to roam.

Oh, and there is a Monkey Forest. With real monkeys.

While we went to look at the gardens, retail junkies are well served by an extensive shopping area. Adjacent is a huge garden centre, which we found to be disappointingly commercial. Not many of the plants we had seen in the gardens were available to buy. It was one of those garden centres where selling plants seemed like an afterthought.

But all in all, it’s definitely worth the hour or so’s journey for a good day out the whole family can enjoy.