Imagine a planting area which you don’t just look at from a distance but which you can and should walk through. There is something rather special about being able to get right up to plants and to be completely surrounded by them. Steppe planting is open and allows you to wander amongst the plants and to create your own paths through them.
Steppe planting takes as its inspiration the dry rocky plains and hillsides of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It is wild and informal and is not defined by formal beds.
Ideally the conditions should be very free draining, with what would normally be considered very poor soil. Low nutrient levels, grit, stone and even builders’ rubble are ideal. The plants are mulched with gravel or grit which helps to conserve moisture and allows you to walk through without getting muddy feet.
The plants used need to be tough and able to withstand summer drought, wind and freezing winters. They will quite often have silver or waxy foliage to help reflect sunlight and retain moisture. The way the plants are laid out needs to be as natural as possible which means that they are spaced in small groups which are separate from each other. This prevents over-competition for meagre resources. As you will be walking amongst the plants there is no need to grade them by size as you would in a traditional herbaceous border with the largest at the back and smallest at the front.
Steppe planting will look good from spring when bulbs will flower – when you can literally tiptoe through the tulips - through to the winter when structure will be given by the forms of grasses and seed heads. During the summer there will be a succession of brilliant flashes of colour as various species flower.
It is ideal as a low maintenance style as, once established, it requires little attention or watering. Any plants that are inclined to self-seed only need the occasional thinning out if they get too numerous.
Any of the following species would be ideally suited and will give a long season of colour and interest.
Tulips – particularly Species/Botanical Tulips such as Tulipa turkestanic.
Allium Cernuum and Bulgaricum.
Eryngium ‘Silver Ghost’.
Artemesia ‘Powys Castle’.