Earlier this week I was out enjoying the Spring sunshine while walking Rosey, my dog. We were at our favourite spot on Sizewell beach, in Suffolk, where the coastline supports a wide range of wild flowers and grasses. These include delicate, white Bee Orchids and swathes of tall, blue Vipers Burgloss in early Summer. I was struck by how quickly the Marram grass has colonised the new coastline, where storms have raised the beach levels. In 2 years a vast area of stony beach has been reclaimed by this tenacious plant, creating a stabilised environment for other more delicate wild flowers
It reminded me of how plants men like Piet Oudolf were inspired by the way wild grasses and perennials disperse their seeds and create communities. He creates planting designs that emulated the way these plants behave naturally, using large swathes of perennials and grasses in a naturalistic scheme.
I can remember a time when I would look at these planting schemes with awe but just couldn't quite imagine how to integrate grasses into a small urban garden!
15 years on and I now can't imagine designing a scheme with no grasses in it. I love the way they add movement and texture in the garden throughout the growing season and into the Winter, when their skeletons retain their structure. Below is a scheme for a front garden that we planted five years ago. It looks stunning during the winter when frost outlines each leaf.
However for many garden owners, grasses still seem 'newfangled and strange'.
Here are a selection of my current favourite grasses. I am always on the look out for new ones!
Orizopsis miliacea. This is a delicate airy grass that grow to about 1m high. It has fine leaves at the base and is evergreen, sending new flower spikes up throughout the Winter. I love the way the weak Winter sun makes the flowers glisten like little diamonds and bring relief to a dark border when the sun is low in the sky. Gently self-seeds. A grass that deserves to be more widely used.
Carex testacea. Olive green mounds that turn copper in the Autumn. Will cope in part shade. Its great as a mass planting and looks fresh all year round. Insignificant brown flowers, doesn't self seed madly. A good alternative to Anamanthele lessoniana which can seed madly and get rather tatty after a couple of years.
Hakonechloa macra. Great in under trees and in shade , creating soft mounds of mid green leaves.
It is deciduous and does take a while to establish but is worth the wait. It is great planted en masse. Variegated varieties are available too, H. macra 'Allgold' or 'Aureola'
Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'. Fantastic upright grass which will hold its shape all Winter. Looks good as a mass planting, a partition between areas or as an accent plant to give height to a scheme. I have used it in place of a hedge in my Suffolk garden, as I have honey fungus which makes hedge planting a risky business. Grasses are not susceptible to it so are a good alternative. C. acutiflora 'Overdam' has white variegation.
Setaria italica 'Red Jewel'. Beautiful annual grass that self-seeds gently around the garden. Soft, red seed heads that look wonderful when caught by the frost. Seeds worth searching for! I bought a small pot of it about12 years ago and it has gently colonised my gardens and the allotment! It pops up in planters and between paving. Friends are always asking for some too!
Good places to look for grasses to buy are, Beth Chatto Gardens , Woottons Nursery and Knoll Gardens. They all do mail order but are also great places to visit.
If you are interested in hearing about how the industry is thinking about using Grasses in design, treat yourself to a day at the Society of Garden Designers Spring Conference . It is being held on March 21st in London at the Royal Geographical Society and will be an interesting and informative day with lots of prestigious speakers.