On a whim, and with absolutely no expectations, last year I visited the Sussex Prairie Garden near Henfield for the first time. My visit coincided with their Indian Bazaar (which this year runs from 4th August to 2nd September). The gardens immediately went on my list as one of my all-time favourite Sussex places, and if you get the chance, I’d wholeheartedly recommend a visit.
About the gardens
You are met with an assortment of brightly coloured and fluttering, fabric flags, a shimmering elephant and a colourful array of little murals painted on a wooden shed. It’s hard to believe that this garden only opened in 2009, a year after it was planted. It was designed and created by Paul and Pauline McBride who have designed gardens as far afield as Scotland, Luxembourg and India! Described as a “naturalistic” garden, it covers eight acres and is home to some 35,000 plants.
The Sussex Prairie Garden website describes naturalistic as “The plantings consist of large groupings of each variety, planted in a free-flowing style, which contrasts leaf forms, stems, stalks, flower shapes and textures. Colours are soft and muted, and complement the natural landscape.”
To the untrained eye like mine, the gardens are definitely about form, texture and structure but also about freedom and flow, and the experience is one of wave after wave of subtlety, sensuality, surprises and a sense of wellbeing. It is everything you might expect from a garden and quite a lot more.
The Tropical Garden
I’ve long since yearned for my own banana plant (long story, don’t ask) and it couldn’t be more delightful than to start your visit here in the Tropical Garden which takes you through an arch of banana palms.
If a parakeet had swooped down or a monkey had swung through the trees, I would not have been surprised as this tropical garden transports you to an exotic paradise. In amongst the giant bananas (complete with fruit), are ferns and palms, the huge red leaves of Canna lilies, another elephant (made from chicken wire and bedecked in flags), sculptures, grasses and more.
As I walked, I was beginning to realise that you almost can’t explore this garden quickly enough because it’s so full of treasures and delights that you develop a terrible and impatient hunger to rush on and discover what lies ahead.
The Cutting Garden
From the Tropical Garden, I made my way past the rare breed pigs to the Cutting Garden which has the impressive backdrop of a beautifully restored, matt black, corrugated Dutch barn along with a rusted iron silo, now converted into a private house. The barn was short-listed for Grand Designs House of the Year 2022.
The colours and textures of the buildings provide the perfect balance for the hedonistic clumps of flowers and a small Indian temple. Dahlias, Echinacea, Queen Anne’s Lace, flowering Tobacco plants, Rudbeckia, it’s all there and just when you think you’ve soaked it all up, you spot a sculpture, basking in a clump of some blooms or grasses.
Artists in Residence, a sculpture trail and the Bazaar
Each year the gardens also welcome an artist in residence and this year it is the turn of a group of artists – Kairos who you will find in the garden room gallery. Their residency will include different mediums (including painting, drawing, photography, sculptures, animation, textiles and more) as well as sculptures and installations in situ in the wonderful gardens. There’s also a new sculpture trail for 2023, “Expressions of Nature” which includes stonework, ceramics, fused glass, glass and wood structures and hand-blown glass and stained glass.
And then it is on to the Indian Bazaar. For anyone who has ever spent time in India, the smell of sandalwood and the bright silks and threads are instantly reminiscent, with gold, silver, pink and purple fabrics shimmering in the sunlight, as well as beads and embroidery, wall hangings and sumptuous marquees.
At this point, you just have to forget about the gardens for a while and embrace your inner Maharaja. The garden will wait.
The main garden
The main garden is laid out in a spiralling nautilus shell, which feels like a series of crescents. The borders are wide, but informal paths through the beds allow you to explore … although it’s hard to know where to start because you don’t want to miss anything. There are lots of familiar plants here (Penstemon, Echinachea, Red Hot Pokers, grasses) but also lots of the less familiar too.
Every plant has something to offer in its own right, and yet also offers something to its neighbour – perhaps it complements the colour, softens a spikey cluster or adds form to a cloud of white. The garden sways along feeling effortless (although you know a lot of effort goes into making a garden look this good), enchanting you as it does so, and periodically revealing yet more sculptures.
Once you’ve been all the way around the first time, you may want to go round again, or sit at the Monet-esque lily pond and soak up some more of the garden’s soothing effects. I’ve said before that I’m prone to getting over-excited and despite its immensely calming effect, Sussex Prairie Garden left me very over-excited at the prospect of having something quite so magical close at hand. It really is very special.
The gardens close for the winter on 16 October so you still have plenty of time to enjoy them (although they are not open on Mondays and Tuesdays). They also host a series of workshops and events. You can find out more on their website.
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