Archive for the ‘ORNAMENTAL GRASSES’ Category

Around November [and into December] the gardening round always throws up the question, ‘Would you like me to leave the seedheads or cut them down’? I always ask as it’s a personal preference…and it is their garden…and I always hope that maybe one day they will actually surprise me and all say, ‘leave them’.

More often than not I am cutting them down [Achillea, Anenome, Echinacea, Iris, Phlox, Rudbeckia, Salvia etc etc] and squeezing them into green wheelie bins, ladybirds and all. Feeling slightly guilty, I wait for these creatures to climb to the top of the stems, pick them off and attempt to find them a new home in the now naked garden. It is true what they say; leaving dead stems will provide homes for insects [beneficial as well as the pests] to hibernate through the winter and is one horticultural ‘good practice’ reason not to do the chop.

Another reason to leave them is for their structural contribution to the winter garden. No one can deny how interesting dead stems can look after a hard frosty night, all icy and crystallized. I am a huge fan of this transformation and is my excuse for being ultimately lazy and not lifting a finger in my own garden till the spring.

However, not all plant specimens are good for this purpose. Many perennials and grasses disappointingly flop, strew themselves all over the ground and look a complete mangled hash. Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ starts off by showing such wonderful promise. Tall, elegant, fawn-coloured stems gleam in the border, but then, overnight they flop. Drat. I have two of these grasses in the garden and so wish I’d gone for a sturdier Miscanthus instead.

With clients who don’t mind what I do with their stems, I always go with the ‘flop chop’ approach. All the sturdy stems I like stay and the flopped ones I don’t are cleared away. I’m happy, the bugs are happy, the client’s not really bothered.

The ‘leave or not to leave’ preference has even impacted on my planting design plans, particularly perennial and grass based schemes. All clients want low maintenance as well as year round colour and interest in their borders. Choosing plants that keep their structure well into winter is an important consideration and one that I have been making mental notes about over recent years.

Some favourites for keeping upright and strong stemmed are the umbels of Sedum and Achillea millefolium [‘Terracotta’ holds really well], the tiny spherical seedheads of Anenome, the spires of Digitalis and Verbascum, the whorls of Phlomis and the shorter billowy grasses Hakonechloa and Stipa tenuissima. Miscanthus, as mentioned already, is great for winter plume structure, Eupatorium maculatum for big perennial umbel structure and Ligularia japonica for fluffy seedheads that will be blown away in the winds. There are loads of suitable candidates out there, it’s just a matter of bearing in mind what happens to them after they have performed for the summer/autumn months…do they flop or not?

The main reasons for leaving them be in my own garden [above], are, in order of importance: first has to be ease of maintenance [laziness], second structure [I don’t usually do the ‘flop chop’ approach here either], third hibernating bugs, fourth I’d like to say annoy the neighbours, but they probably don’t give a monkeys about how my front garden looks and fifth because as soon as I sniff that lovely warming earthy smell of spring I can get out there and clear away the cobwebs till my hearts content.

So what kind of person are you, to leave or not to leave?

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After a roller coaster RHS Tatton show, birthday/anniversary strewn summer holiday [one every week and consequently far too many cakes] and finally a peaceful week away in Cornwall, life is now getting back to a comfortable humdrum of a routine. The September version of the BL Magazine article is all about ornamental grasses, well, more like a pick of my absolute favourites… to be fair…

Ornamental grasses have become increasingly popular in recent years and I am one amongst the gardening fraternity that has also fallen hook, line and sinker for them. I think my love for them started with discovering the wispy fluffy plumes of Stipa tenuissima many moons ago. The slightest breeze will make them billow and sway, giving planting schemes movement and depth, especially when repeat planted.

Using grasses in perennial schemes is a style that was brought to the forefront of the planting design world by the Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf. His planting schemes are jaw-droppingly sublime, magical and somehow manage to epitomise nature. This ‘naturalistic style’ of planting evolved through observing how grasses and perennials grew in the wild, concentrating on structure and the textural qualities of each plant. It is this link to nature that appeals to many [including me] and is probably the reason why grasses have become enormously popular today.

In true Piet Oudolf style, I will go though some classic ornamental grasses that have become my favourites to use in planting schemes by their structural form. Starting with transparent, and there are many in this category, is a form that tends to include the taller grasses that create a see-through screen. Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ [ridiculously long Latin name I know] or commonly known as Purple Moor Grass has incredibly elegant feathery spikelets that will catch the slightest breeze. Their fine see-through flowering stems will reach around one meter in height and will contrast beautifully with bolder perennials. It will do well in most soil conditions as long as it is not too dry, will tolerate light shade but does best in full sun.

Stipa gigantea is another transparent grass but instead of a fine fizz of flowerheads this grass has golden oat-like flowers on huge arching stems; once established they can reach 2.5m in height. It is a lovely majestic grass, definitely for the back of a border and will add height and shimmer in the evening summer sunlight. One last transparent must-have grass is Deschampsia cespitosa Goldtau [pictured below]. Another elegant grass with finely textured flowerheads on long slender stems it will give your borders an extraordinarily magical, almost dreamlike quality. Plant as single specimens dotted amongst perennials for maximum sublime effect.

Grasses for foliage texture is another structural form and offers an important contrast to other plants. Carex comans ‘Frosted Curls’ [also pictured below] is a small evergreen grass with silvery leaves that curl at the tips. Its fine, wiry texture looks great next to broader leaf forms like Alchemilla mollis, even the purple sage in the picture, and gives you interest all year round. Also pictured here is another grass Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Variegata’ [these Molinia’s like these long Latin names] which has unusual cream and pale green variegated leaves. This particular grass gives you the best of both worlds, textural leaf contrast as well as the transparent qualities from its purple flower spikelets, which reach around 0.6m high.

One last grass in this category is Hakonechloa macra [again pictured below]. I love this grass and first discovered it only a few years ago in a garden I went to visit [I think it was Dunham Massey, near Altrincham]. The specimen I saw was obviously very happy in its position and very mature as it was a substantial hummock of cascading fresh green leaves. If there is one grass that epitomises nature itself, lush green fields and meadows in the spring, it has to be this grass. On a recent garden design project my client wanted to reduce the maintenance of his garden [bad knee] and decided [begrudgingly] to dig up the lawn, in favour of a more practical patio area. I immediately told him about this grass and suggested we should surround the patio area with borders and plant them en masse with Hakonechloa macra. He went for the idea and now, a year on from planting up, reclining on that patio gives you the impression of a lush green field, albeit in the middle of a suburban garden.

The final category is plumes. This form is a soft, fluffy inflorescence that acts as a great companion to the more bold forms of plants. Astilbes and Filipendulas are classic perennial examples of plume flowers, but there are a couple of grasses that also fit the bill. Stipa tenuissima, which I mentioned at the beginning, creates a plume-like shape, great for softening and blending a planting scheme. Another plume grass is Calamagrostis brachytricha which has rather tall [up to 1.5m] fluffy flowerheads tinged silvery grey with a hint of purple. Use in the middle of a border to soften harder structural forms like Echinops ‘Taplow Blue’.

Ornamental grasses offer garden plantings a wealth of additional qualities that traditional plant types like perennials, roses and shrubs just cannot give. From majestic to magical, textural to just plain practical, there is one out there that will convert you; it’s just a matter of time.

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