Inspired by the Michaelmas swathes on my doorstep, and with the rare fortune of a free afternoon, I decided to visit the Horniman museum in Forest Hill.
At the tail end of last year, the Horniman engaged leading horticultural ecologist James Hitchmough (known for his London Olympic Park planting) in creating two large ‘grassland’ display beds in the museum gardens, emulating the kind of natural plant communities found in the prairies of South Africa and North America.
I felt confident the beds would be looking pretty good – if the staggering popularity of prairie planting in recent years has taught us anything, it’s that its charms often peak at the arrival of autumn – and this was certainly the case.
Echinacea, Berkheya, Kniphofia, and, of course, asters projected from the beds in a striking array of brilliant colours, having seized their new footholds with remarkable fervour and begun to spread attractively, one into the other.
Hitchmough’s exercise at the Horniman serves a dual purpose however; it is beautiful and considered planting, but also a stark reminder of our worryingly changing climate.
While centuries of disturbance and agro-industry have depleted the Earth’s wild grasslands (thought to have once covered a quarter of the globe), and continue to endanger what remains of those indigenous to America and southern Africa, rising temperatures now bring to question the kind of plants that will thrive in our warming British countryside and gardens.
The grassland beds exhibit a compellingly arid-loving alternative to the quintessential, well-mulched English herbaceous border. And if you needed any more convincing, there are much larger grassland beds at Oxford Botanic Gardens, similarly conceived by James Hitchmough, now well-established following ten years of steady development.
The ‘Merton Borders’ were sown from seed in 2008, and encompass a vast patchwork of floral communities including mallows, diascias, thistles, soaring Stipa gigantea and bright yellow Silphium terebinthinaceum. They are an – and I hesitate to use this word – epic display of a kind of planting that seems to be increasingly at home in the soil of our southern counties.