Real garden: a colourful autumn garden

Sweeps of prairie-style planting and vibrant colour combinations make this farmhouse garden an autumnal glory

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Transforming your garden? Be inspired by this rambling country garden of a romantic, timber-framed farmhouse, which has been gradually transformed over the last 18 years by its owners Sir Vernon Ellis, who was Chairman of the English National Opera for many years, and his wife Lady Hazel.

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What sets the garden apart is the swathes of prairie-style planting, which reaches its crescendo of texture and colour in late autumn. The effect is based on the planting themes of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, with huge drifts blending into one another.


Once covered in 1,500 half dead fir trees and overgrown chestnut coppices, with boggy areas and acidic, heavy Weald clay soil, the sloping garden presented lots of challenges. But Sir Vernon and Lady Hazel also saw it had great potential, so worked with garden designer Sally Court to create the planting plan.

summerhouse amid prairie style planting

The summerhouse appears to rise out of the prairie planting

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

Although he had always had an interest in gardening and plants, this was the largest garden Sir Vernon had tried to tackle. 'It looked like a WWI battlefield when we removed the trees,' he remembers. But gradually, over time and with the addition of copious amounts of top soil, the 10 acres have been cultivated on this picturesque, hilly setting.

Prairie style planting in an autumn garden

Grass paths meander through the ornamental grasses, such as panicum, miscanthus, calamagrostis and long-flowering perennials

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

Autumn colour

From late summer through autumn the deep herbaceous borders surrounding the expansive lawn are filled with colour. They billow with mauve asters, repeated clumps of crimson Sedum spectabile, dancing Japanese anemones, clusters of dahlias and a variety of rich-toned salvias – a particular favourite of Sir Vernon’s. 

Herbaceous borders in an autumn garden

The deep herbaceous borders around the lawn are planted with mauve asters, repeated clumps of crimson sedum, Japanese anemones, dahlias and salvias

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

These were inspired by a bed that he saw at Kew Gardens, and he has created a dedicated border around the house to over 30 varieties of salvias.

autumn garden borders

Viewed through burgundy cotinus and berberis, trimmed topiary punctuates the lawn border that billows with crimson salvias and penstemons, along with deeper Hylotelephium spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ and harmonising panicles of blue Aconitum napellus

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

The land contours down, with an intersecting stream that was created to lead to an existing pond that was cleared and enlarged. Water is prevalent throughout the garden, from frequent springs to boggy areas. 

pond area in a garden

A small copse of silver birch shades the top pond

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

Prairie-style planting

Designed by nurserywoman Marina Christopher, the prairie-style planting blends together.

The shimmer of the palette of plants is quite mesmerising as you watch the interplay of light on spires of Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’, Sanguisorba officinalis and Veronicastrum virginicum with daisy-shaped asters, heleniums and rudbeckias. 

All of this is against the parchment foil of the ornamental grasses, such as the atmospheric Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ and feathery Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. 

Prarie colourful planting in autumn garden


(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

At the bottom of the garden is a small sunken garden room with bubbling individual water features, surrounded by ornamental grasses. This sheltered, hidden spot is a true suntrap, perfect for catching the rays of late summer sun.

a bench surrounded by grasses with a water feature in a garden

A bench is placed to enjoy the arching sprays of the appropriately named fountain grass, pennisetum, which surrounds the small water feature

(Image: © leigh clapp)

Many of the plants have been selected because they thrive in the moist, rich acidic soil. These include the beautiful Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Variegata’, prolific Eupatorium maculatum ‘Purple Bush’, and the ethereal Thalictrum delavayi. 

Verbena Boriensis

Drifts of grasses and Verbena bonariensis in the low autumn light

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

Others cope with sun or part shade in a range of soils, in particular the frothy Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’.

anemones in the breeze

Japanese anemones waft in the breeze with Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

flowers in an autumn garden

Dainty mauve-blue symphyotrichum or Michaelmas daisies are brilliant for the autumn garden and combine strikingly with massed golden rudbeckias

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

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