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Published 29/06/2012 email E-MAIL print PRINT

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Leckhampton Prairie Garden: a Garden for Today

by PETER CAROLIN

Leckhampton House is once again the scene of a pioneering venture. Fifty years after it became home to the University’s first post-graduate collegiate community, its much-admired garden has become host to what is, almost certainly, Cambridge’s first prairie garden. This month in July again the prairie beds are in full bloom, evidence of the planning skill and design of Tom Stuart-Smith’s planting selection: this as the fulfillment of the aspirations of the late Michael McCrum and his wife Christine, on behalf of the College, Corpus Christi.

The link between both ventures is indeed Michael McCrum, who, as Senior Tutor, had proposed that – through the establishment of the Leckhampton community – the College should be the first to implement the Bridges Syndicate’s recommendations on post-graduate care. By the turn of the century, it was clear that the rose garden – Leckhampton’s greatest glory – had for too long rested on its laurels and that decisions on its maintenance were being made on an ad hoc basis. In particular, this was a difficult area to maintain at the best of times and was in a poor way. In 2004, with his birthday approaching, Michael (former Master of the College) and Christine McCrum decided to commission an emergent landscape architect, Tom Stuart-Smith, to draw up a strategy and maintenance plan for the entire garden.

Known today as a seven-times winner of Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals, Stuart-Smith had been a wise choice. Inspired by two elderly but hugely enthusiastic landscape architects, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-96) and the Britain-based American, Lanning Roper (1912-83), Stuart-Smith completed a post-graduate course in landscape design at Manchester University. In practice, he has worked on everything from bypasses and reservoirs to historic garden conservation and Sainsbury’s car parks (the low point) and from huge new gardens at Wisley to small prize-winning ones at Chelsea. He claims never to have had a drawing lesson and to have started drawing, at the age of 19, skulls on the Natural Sciences course. But, in an age when too many landscape architects are generating rather lifeless computer representations, Stuart-Smith’s drawings today stand out for their elegance and clarity. (see: www.tomstuartsmith.co.uk).

As part of his long-term plan for Leckhampton, Stuart-Smith had proposed a prairie garden to replace the high-maintenance and chemically intensive rose garden. He describes the replacement as “something rather outrageous – completely out of place early in the year but growing enormously in power as it colours out. It’s extraordinary and unexpected and it would be nice to duplicate it on the other side of the central path.” Michael McCrum liked the idea of an area in the natural tradition of the famous Leckhampton lupins – grass-grown perennials.

The prairie at Leckhampton is largely composed of some of the daisies that are common in the moist (mesic) tall grass prairie from Southern Wisconsin to Northern Texas. Some of the species, such as tall coneflower, Rudbeckia maxima, are not prairie species per se, but are adaptable to being grown with prairie species. These species are largely long-lived perennials, although Echinacea purpurea typically persists for only 4-6 years but regenerates by self-seeding.

In due course, following the College’s acceptance of Stuart-Smith’s plan, work started on tree planting, clearance and preparation of the former rose garden for its new role as a prairie garden. Making the prairie garden had involved spraying–off and rotovating the old rose garden, spreading the seed, covering it with a 10 cm layer of sand and placing a jute covering over that. No new soil was brought in. The seeds came from Germany, the sand stopped native plants from germinating but retained the moisture for the seeds and the jute both prevented the birds from pecking seeds and provided a moisture indicator. The largest potential threat remains mollusks but these tend to be kept down by the grit in the sand. Finally, at the season’s end, weeds can be burnt out without affecting the prairie plants, which are, by nature, fire-resistant.   Pernicious weeds are treated by “spot” treatment. It was useful to compare the Leckhampton result with Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion Garden in London. The constricted space for the planting had its limitations. (see Studio International, July 2011).
    
This year, in August, there will again be wonderful swathes of yellow rudbeckia with patches of purple echinacea and the odd, highly dramatic, tall yellow silphium. From now on, Stuart-Smith expects the plants and balance of colour to change of its own accord. The echinaceas may well decline in number, compensated by more tall silphiums. No watering is required. The overall height will remain at about 60-90 cm, punctuated by 2-3 m high docks. The only trace now of the original rose garden is a circular pattern caused by the use of pesticide on the path at its centre.   A new, smaller, lower maintenance rose garden is planned for the little alcove to the north of the George Thomson building.

Now in July, the garden is seen to look at its best, very much a garden for its time. The prairie garden had been formally opened earlier. The family is delighted and full of admiration for the work and understanding of Neil Taylor, the Leckhampton gardener. It is not only the colourful prairie garden that pleases them but also the tree planting and the surviving promise of the new rose garden. Stuart-Smith seems happy, too. Asked in his London office, high above Smithfield, to name his favourite Cambridge garden, he considered some of the best known before revealing that his best memory of Cambridge gardens was lying among the lupins at Leckhampton.

The College’s graduate community at Leckhampton inspired many others – some, like Trinity Hall’s Wychfield and Trinity’s Burrell’s Field, adjuncts to existing Colleges, others like Clare Hall and Darwin, complete Colleges in themselves. In the same way, will Leckhampton’s prairie garden be the precursor of many more?  Requiring no watering and little maintenance, this colourful meadow – home in high summer to a host of bees and butterflies – seems ideally suited to tough times ahead in this most arid part of Britain.

Peter Carolin is a Life Fellow, Emeritus Professor of Architecture, University of Cambridge.



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