From quiet workhorses to seriously ‘wow’... these are plants with texture and personality. MICHAEL MCCOY explores their uses in the garden
As hard as it is to believe, there was a time when the only grasses you’d see in a garden were those mown as lawn. And it wasn’t that long ago. Somewhere in the late ’80s, our plant palette blew out to embrace the whole new textural range, sense of movement and seasonality that ornamental grasses could provide, and our gardens haven’t looked back since.
Grasses are capable of being either the showy heroes or silent workhorses of planting schemes. Those of an inherently modest disposition might contribute to a quiet, subtle native garden, while their high-glam sisters might make suitable dance partners for dahlias. Their versatility is such that they can appear as simple seasoning, used sparingly to spice up a planting, or they can form the complete background matrix of a meadow or contemporary perennial planting.
As a designer, the most fundamental distinction I make in this now large group of plants is whether they’re deciduous or evergreen. ‘Evergreen-ness’ may be useful, but the truth is that the deciduous species are by far the easier grasses to manage in the long-term, as a single cut to the ground in late winter each year is the sum total of the care they need. The evergreen species, on the other hand, are mostly far less tolerant of a brutal cut back, and require a more considered ‘grooming’, usually involving a combing through with a well-gloved hand to remove a proportion of the inevitably accumulating dead foliage, often referred to as ‘straw’.
Deciduous species invariably add seasonal drama to the garden. Some forms bolt up to 4m in a single season after their annual cut back, followed by showy summer or autumn flowering then a descent into fawn-coloured dormancy, which can involve a slow bleaching or, at best, autumn toning to match those of deciduous trees.
Towering feathery ower spikes of golden oats grass create attractive accents among summer- owering perennials.
Evergreen species are, in general, somewhat more modest, but are no less useful or important in contemporary and coastal landscaping, in which their light, wind-catching tussocks provide an irreplaceable contrast to the clipped domes of shrubs. That they frequently end up as brown as they are green is embraced, in this setting, as a part of their beauty.
Largely from Asia and mostly deciduous, the Miscanthus spp. grasses are tall to very tall, flowering at 2–4m following an annual cut back. Their straw colouring in winter is considered a part of their charm – so much so that many owners have trouble disciplining themselves to cut them down when new growth starts in early spring. They are reasonably drought tolerant, but severe mid-summer dry may inhibit their mid-late summer flowering.
CLOCKWISE FROM OPPOSITE Pencil pines provide a sharp vertical accent to mounds of Sarabande feather grass ( foreground) and giant miscanthus; evergreen miscanthus; soft Miscanthus sinensis ‘Garcillimus’ is a perfect foil for the sculptural Agave americana; Japanese forest grass; Japanese blood grass.