Carol Klein on why grasses are a mag­i­cal ad­di­tion to any plot

They bring some­thing that’s miss­ing in many plant­ings – move­ment, sound and even hu­mour

Garden News (UK) - - News -

‘Soft and swish­ing, wild and thrash­ing, they’re the plants that ex­cel at mak­ing mu­sic in the gar­den’

Aquar­ter of a cen­tury ago, very few gar­den­ers, cer­tainly in the UK, got ex­cited by the prospect of in­clud­ing grasses in their plant­ing. Nowa­days, in many gar­dens in­clud­ing them is con­sid­ered if not com­pul­sory, then at least de­sir­able.

Grasses bring qual­i­ties to a gar­den that no other plants can. So of­ten plant­ings may seem per­fectly con­ceived, with colour, form and tex­ture work­ing to­gether har­mo­niously, none­the­less some­thing is miss­ing. Plant com­bi­na­tions can work per­fectly, yet there’s some­thing lack­ing – an el­e­ment of move­ment or even a touch of hu­mour.

Sound in a gar­den is sel­dom con­sid­ered ex­cept per­haps for the in­clu­sion of a wa­ter fea­ture, yet plants them­selves can bring sound to the gar­den, soft and swish­ing or wild and thrash­ing; the plants that ex­cel at mak­ing mu­sic in the gar­den are grasses.

When they first be­came fash­ion­able in the UK, even TV pun­dits seemed fright­ened about us­ing them. Of­ten they were herded to­gether into a grass gar­den and of­ten used in pots. In con­trast, on the Con­ti­nent they were lauded and in­cor­po­rated into plant­ing schemes, of­ten play­ing the lead­ing role.

Us­ing grasses cre­atively on a smaller plot presents a greater chal­lenge. They need to be cho­sen care­fully but used au­da­ciously. Grasses added ran­domly as con­trast can look lost and in­con­gru­ous.

At the other end of the scale, col­lec­tions of larger grasses can end up like beds in a botanic gar­den. The trick is to in­te­grate them to en­hance other plants.

Many grasses have a dreamy in­sub­stan­tial­ity that de­fies def­i­ni­tion. A meadow is a sea of lilt­ing move­ment without fo­cal points. There might not be room for a wild­flower meadow in your gar­den but the same ef­fect can be achieved by us­ing a lim­ited pal­ette of plants with large quan­ti­ties of one grass. This could be planted as a swathe run­ning through ar­eas of taller plants, or

a mead­owy mar­gin could form an un­du­lat­ing edge to a bor­der. Such a verge would add asym­me­try and move­ment.

Wild­flower mead­ows peak for a short space of time, but if you choose care­fully, you can keep in­ter­est go­ing from spring through to au­tumn. Deschamp­sia

flex­u­osa, the wavy-hair grass, makes vivid, acid-green foun­tains in spring that com­bine beau­ti­fully with the le­mon but­ter­cup, Ra­nun­cu­lus acris ‘Citri­nus’, and the near turquoise spikes of Veron­ica gen­tianoides. Af­ter its spires have died, stems of cro­cos­mia would add rich colour to the now tawny grass, and could be fol­lowed by au­tumn cro­cus or some Amaryl­lis bel­ladonna.

There are some grasses that are just meant to make pic­tures with other plants. The fluffy spikes of

Pen­nise­tum ori­en­tale are per­fect against the dark, suc­cu­lent leaves of hy­lotele­phium (se­dum) ‘Pur­ple Em­peror’ and the spiky bracts of Eryn­gium bour­gatii. Some va­ri­eties of Molinia

caerulea are best used in part­ner­ship. Molinia ‘Edith Dud­szus’ has re­fined up­right stems. It’s just the right can­di­date for a tight spot, per­haps us­ing sev­eral plants a cou­ple of feet apart close to the con­ver­gence of two paths, where height is needed but over­hang­ing growth would be im­prac­ti­cal. De­spite the sen­tinel ef­fect you can see through it, glimps­ing the treats in store as you walk along the path.

We can fol­low the ex­am­ple na­ture sets when it comes to us­ing grasses cre­atively. First of all, the grasses used must fit the at­mos­phere of the gar­den. If there is an over­whelm­ing feel­ing of drama and ar­chi­tec­ture us­ing big plants and large leaves, then bold grasses are needed.

Va­ri­eties of Mis­cant­hus sinen­sis can some­times be over­done so it’s dif­fi­cult to see their true in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Use them light­heart­edly. Weave a few mis­cant­hus ‘Ferner Osten’, or any va­ri­ety with pink­ish plumes, through tall he­le­ni­ums or

Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis, or part­ner them with can­nas.

Cor­ner sites can be lent the­atri­cal over­tones by us­ing a tall ver­ti­cal grass as a punc­tu­a­tion mark. One of the up­right Molinia

caerulea va­ri­eties could play this role. Dur­ing late sum­mer their in­flo­res­cences cre­ate a pur­ple haze but later, from Septem­ber on­wards, both stems and seed heads change to shim­mer­ing gold. ‘Skyracer’, ‘Wind­spiel’ and ‘Karl Fo­er­ster’ are all ex­cel­lent.

There are smaller, dain­tier grasses which are equally as se­duc­tive. Deschamp­sia flex­u­osa ‘Ta­tra Gold’ is a de­light in early spring when its fine, foun­tain­ous growth looks like a fi­bre-op­tic lamp. Soon af­ter­wards it cov­ers it­self with pretty pink flow­ers. Use sev­eral to make a wan­der­ing rib­bon among eschoscholzia or peren­nial Ori­en­tal pop­pies.

Al­though grasses are usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with grow­ing in the open some are per­fectly suited to the shady side of the gar­den.

Mel­ica nu­tans and M. uni­flora are de­light­ful wood­land types.

Grasses should be di­vided in the spring as do­ing it in au­tumn can lead to rot­ting. Grow­ing species from seed is sim­ple. On a dry day, run your thumb­nail and fore­fin­ger along the seed head over a piece of white pa­per. The seed should read­ily fall off.

You get the best re­sults when seed is sown fresh. Sow thinly, or drop one or two seeds into each com­part­ment of a cell tray. Each new grass will have its own space and will rapidly de­velop a strong root sys­tem.

Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis

Va­ri­eties of mis­cant­hus with pink­ish plumes, such as ‘Malepar­tus, look won­der­ful weaved through

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