Not just something dull that needs endless mowing Sue Whigham exhalts the subtle effects of feature grasses in borders and for striking autumn colour.
In 1871 William Morris travelled down from London to see a house near Lechlade and fell instantly in love with the place. It was the house he had seen in a dream. We recently visited and could understand how he must have felt when he first saw Kelmscott Manor.
After lunch we walked along the Thames Path for a while and took in the sedges and the reeds along the river. And earlier in the day, during an idyllic amble up the side of a barley field to the accompaniment of skylarks overhead and blackcaps singing in the wayfaring trees, I was thinking that perhaps we could grow a few clumps of barley (Hordeum vulgare) in our gardens. It’s beautiful with its golden colours and rippling movement as the wind blows through it.
Grasses mingling with herbaceous plants provide a transition between mixed borders and areas of the garden which are left uncut until the autumn – ‘garden meadows’ if you like – and there is an enormous choice of ornamental grasses to choose from; the majority of which are pretty easy to grow and which thrive in most soil conditions.
Some are perfectly happy in dry conditions, always a bit of a difficult one for gardeners. These include those with a ‘blue’ foliage such as Elymus magellanicus. Meanwhile, the sedges and rushes thrive in damp conditions like those spotted on the riverside at Kelmscott. The pH of the soil isn’t usually a factor in planting grasses and as long as those of us who grow on chalk can make sure that there is some soil to plant them in they should do fine.
Most grasses are happiest in sun but some, like the carexes and the hakonechloas are more than able to grow well in semi shade. There are both deciduous and evergreen grasses and the rule of thumb is to cut the deciduous varieties down in the spring. The evergreens don’t appreciate being cut hard back particularly, although it can be done, if you feel the need, during their growing season (between late spring and August) and you can thin and tidy them up in the spring too.
So many grasses have the most gorgeous tints in the autumn and fine structure throughout the winter that they add hugely to the beauty of a winter garden. Grow them too in pots remembering to water regularly during the growing season, plus adding dollops of good compost and a long-term fertiliser thrown in for good measure.
A few firm favourites would include:
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ or Fountain Grass is a deciduous grass and has lovely dark green foliage and catkin like flowers which turn gold in the autumn, adding to a long period of interest. I saw it recently combined with bright white penstemons and a very deep blue lavender which was a really pretty combination. There is also a rather good emerald green form, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Viridescens’ which is worth having.
Miscanthus nepalensis This heavenly plant, native to the Himalayas as its name suggests, is a late flowering grass which has the most beautiful, silky golden flower heads which look completely wonderful in the evening light. You’ll need a sheltered, sunny position for it to thrive but do grow it if you can. You’ll love it.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ I think that one of the best things – and there are many – about this grass are its autumn tints. The leaves turn in later summer to a colour combination of russets and orange and before that transformation you have silvery brown flowers that fade as the season progresses. It grows to at least two metres and definitely needs to be left until the spring before being cut down as it is so striking in the winter garden.
Molinia caerulea arundinacea ‘Transparent’ is a tall form of the moor grass which grows so profusely on the Scottish hillsides. It starts to flower in mid-June and grows tall, delicate and feathery. I really do love seeing this plant which, despite reaching heights of up to two metres, is so good in the front of borders. You can then see the planting behind it in a sort of soft haze. It’s a lovely thing. ‘Windspiel’ is a rather stiffer, more upright cultivar which has honey-coloured tones in autumn
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ arrives on the scene in early April when its bright yellow leaves appear above the ground, and then progresses on through into autumn. It looks good grown in a pot or interesting container in either a sunny or partly shaded spot. Its leaves are brightly variegated in yellow and green and all face the same way. The colour tends to change depending on position with sun producing a brighter yellow.
I have it in a clay pot in partial shade and am going to experiment by giving it more light. Hakonechloa macra is a rather underused plant in comparison to the variegated forms (of which ‘Aureola’ is only one) of this grass. Its bright green leaves clump up nicely and tiny flowers appear in the late summer.
Grow too our native hair grass, Deschampsia cespitosa, which produces mounds of dark green foliage topped with delicate long stems and billowing masses of cloud like flowers. ‘Bronze Veil’ and ‘Golden Veil’ grown through borders have soft, subtle colours which give the appearance of floating through and around plants with a more definite outline. These are really easy to grow from seed. Chiltern Seeds sell them.
Finally, grasses can make rather inviting homes to all manner of wildlife; to field mice and a huge diversity of insects and also provide nesting material for birds so all the more reason to add them to your borders, your gravel garden and to the wilder areas of your garden.
Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and help in the sourcing and supply of interesting garden plants.
Barley ripening in a quintessentially English landscape
There is an enormous choice of ornamental grasses to choose from
Grasses can provide a simple backdrop for flowers
Fountain grass is a deciduous grass and has lovely dark green foliage and catkin like flowers which turn gold in the autumn, adding to a long period of interest
Hakonechloa macra arrives on the scene in early April when its bright yellow leaves appear above the ground, and then progresses on through into autumn
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