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