Or­na­men­tal grasses

From quiet work­horses to se­ri­ously ‘wow’... these are plants with tex­ture and per­son­al­ity. MICHAEL MCCOY ex­plores their uses in the gar­den

Gardening Australia - - CONTENTS -

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.

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