My earliest memory of grasses is from fields opposite the house where I grew up. In the suburbs of Birmingham there were not many areas of farmland left so we were lucky to have this little oasis. To me this was the countryside. Along with my siblings and neighbourhood friends we would feed carrots to the horses and run for our lives when the farmer let his cows into the old meadow. They would stampede downhill to drink from the brook where we played so we often had to climb into the trees for safety. Alas these fields were turned into a housing estate during my teens but I’m certain that enjoying this bit of green space had a profound and lasting effect on me. Watching diggers move in and the concrete being poured was heartbreaking. I’d guess the loss of those fields is the reason I now jump at the chance to travel out of the city, even if only to visit a manicured garden.
A few years ago I was tasked with maintaining and developing a large grass garden. The task was pretty daunting, especially as I didn’t have much knowledge of ornamental grasses, but I quickly fell in love with them. I think there’s an element of nostalgia, especially attached to the giant grasses. Maybe they make me feel like a small child again, taking me back to walking through fields of swaying fescue and wheat. It’s clear, many people are now turning to grasses to add a sensory element to their gardens. Maybe, like me, they long for the fields and meadows we have lost. I thought I’d share a few of my favourite grasses.
One of the most widely cultivated genera of grasses is miscanthus. From the towering and jungle-like Miscanthus floridulus, which grows in excess of ten feet, to the modest Miscanthus sinensis ‘Starlight’, growing only to around three feet, there is a miscanthus for almost any garden size and style.
I like to use larger miscanthuses, such as floridulus and sacchariflorus in conjunction with tropical plants such as cannas and bananas. These dramatic leaves are very effective planted densely, with narrow pathways running between. They are perfect for a childrens’ adventure garden.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ is a plant with striking burgundy flowers which grows to around six feet tall and sits happily at the rear of a herbaceous border. ‘Starlight’ will take it’s place in the middle or front of the border. There are many cultivars of M. sinensis available but beware, no matter their size, after two or three years they may well need dividing and this is no easy task. I recently heard a television gardener telling viewers that miscanthus will thrive in heavy clay. This is true but bear in mind, heavy clay will make them all the more difficult to divide.
Fountain grasses add a floaty, dreamy look to a border but work equally well standing alone as a specimen plant where they can achieve their natural dome shape. They are the most tactile of grasses, generally about the right height to brush a hand through whilst walking past. Cenchrus alopecuroides ‘Dark Desire’, formerly Pennisetum alopecuroides, is one of my favourite fountain grasses.
Cenchrus longisetus ‘Cream Falls’, formerly Pennisetum villosum ‘Cream Falls’ is another beauty. It is said not to be reliably hardy here in the midlands but I grew mine from seed three years ago and it’s still going strong. Flowering in it’s first season, this has been very popular with visitors. This one is a shorter grass, good for the front of a border.
Another grass which I grew from seed, two years ago is Cenchrus caudatus ‘Tail Feathers’, formerly Pennisetum macrourum. This is a lovely upright grass to around four feet, again very tactile and almost impossible to pass without stroking. I have noticed it is starting to send out runners so it might need to be kept in check. This also flowered well in it’s first season. I’ve seen it looking very happy grown in a pot, which might be a good idea for anybody worried about it spreading.
A short video of the grass garden from July 2020 demonstrates how happily grasses will sit among and compliment a wide range of plants. From tropical plants to cottage gardens, from prairie planting to exotics, there is a grass which fits the bill. The breeze in this video demonstrates one of the most important sensory elements of grasses: sound caused by movement.
In July a lot of the grasses are still not at full height. September to October is their real peak season but they hold their own well into winter. Throughout winter most of the grasses will stay in place, with the exception of a few, such as molinia, which seem to be the first to fall over. I pay careful consideration to plant pale coloured grasses such, as deschampsia which carry clouds of tiny oat-like seeds, behind plants such as rudbeckia which produce attractive dark seed heads. The resulting silhouettes add another element of winter interest.
Lighting is an important consideration when planting grasses. I am very fortunate to be working on a sun drenched, south facing slope which is perfect for enhancing colours and creating shadows, especially during winter when the sun is lower in the sky.
A few maintenance tips
Every March, we cut down all remaining deciduous grasses, to ground level. This can be an arduous task. Secateurs are the tool of choice for smaller jobs but large grasses, such as miscanthus, have very hard stems meaning your wrist will soon start to ache. For the largest grasses we use loppers but for thinner or softer stemmed grasses, to save time and our wrists, we use a hedge trimmer. I have seen some gardeners tie the grass into a bundle beforehand which means the whole lot can then be carried away once cut. This is helpful for smaller jobs but far too much faffing for large clumps. Another idea is to cut through the grasses from top to bottom in a ‘Zorro’ action. The resulting chopped stems are left on the ground between the grasses and act as a mulch, suppressing weeds and conserving moisture throughout the summer months. Most grasses do not need feeding, a rich mulch such as garden compost or manure will encourage lush and floppy growth which will fall over.
Working on a tight budget means I have to be resourceful when it comes to sourcing more grasses. Many are quite easily grown from seed. In the case of Miscanthus nepalensis I harvest seed fresh in November and sow under cover straight away. I usually find germination takes just a couple of weeks. I prick out, pot on and grow frost free during winter, planting out in early summer once frost has passed. The plants usually flower in their first season. When I do buy grasses, I turn to https://www.knollgardens.co.uk/ Their website offers lots of advice and grasses can be searched due to their growing conditions.
Another way of propagation is division. It’s best not to leave the larger grasses to get too big before dividing. When dividing I find it best to dig a trench around the plant, this gives room for leverage. I will then slice through the clump using a spade, starting at the outside and working slowly through, cutting repeatedly. Don’t try to dig straight into the middle of the root ball, you will gain nothing but an injury. Once sliced through, I push two forks back to back into the middle of the plant and prize the root ball apart. This is where the trench comes in handy, without it the divisions would have nowhere to move to. As you can see, dividing the giant miscanthus above required a heftier tool.
Hopefully there’s a few helpful tips here which might inspire you to grow more grasses or maybe even your first. If you’d like to follow the progress of our grass garden then please do follow me on twitter https://twitter.com/christophhowell