The Grass Isn’t Always Greener…by Martin Blow
I’m not a fan of lawns, although I do appreciate the dedication and effort it takes to create a green sward to be proud of. I much prefer ornamental grasses planted in my border for the year-round show they put on.
There are lots of different grasses to choose from. Most are easy to grow and well behaved but it is worth doing some research as there are some rampant invaders in the world of grasses!
I’ve picked out some star performers from my garden, each has something special to offer.
My absolute favourite grass is a giant growing into an evergreen clump 4ft across and 2ft 6in tall (120cm by 75cm) with flower stems towering to over 6ft (180cm). This is the Giant Spanish Oats (Stipa gigantea). The large oat-like flower heads appear in late May and the stems and husks stay looking good until early February. They make a wonderful display if planted where the flowers can catch the low evening sun in summer.
They are easy to grow in well-drained, poor soil and my one tip for success is do nothing! Don’t water (once they’re established that is), don’t feed and don’t prune them back in winter – just comb out the dead leaves and flower stems (wear gloves as they can be sharp).
A smaller cousin of this giant is Angel Hair Grass (Stipa tenuissima) and she is only 1ft (30cm) tall. The leaves are green in early summer but by late July the leaves and flower stems become golden brown and form a haze between other plants.
Many grasses come into their own in autumn and the Diamond Feather Grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha – I know it’s a mouthful of a name!) is wonderful on a September morning with dewdrops sprinkled among the large feathery flower heads. Cut these grasses to just above the ground in late winter.
This is also the time that the Chinese Silver or Zebra grasses (Miscanthus sinensis) start flowering. These are typically large, tall grass with either slivery lines along the length of the leaves or yellow bands running up the leaves. The flowers are large, silky tassels and look wonderful against the intense blue of the autumn sky. The banded Zebra grasses are a great, non-invasive alternative to bamboos. There are dwarf varieties like Gold Bar (2ft / 60cm), giants up to 8ft (240cm) and all sizes between.
I cut these grasses down to about 1ft (30cm) tall in late winter. You can also trim them back later if you want to reduce their ultimate height.
If you are looking for a really tough grass then Moor Grass is the one for you. As you might expect they grow in cold, exposed places and do well in most garden conditions although they will die back in extreme drought, growing back when the moisture returns to the soil. One of the shortest is Moor Hexe (“Moor Witch”) at about 2ft (60cm) tall. The most spectacular is Windspiel (“Wind Play”) which is 6ft (180cm) tall and turns orange and gold in October. Just as colourful is the 3ft (90cm) Strahlenquelle (“Shining Fountain”). Earlier to flower is the variety Transparent that is just that, see-through stems creating a gauzy haze with the colours of the flowers in the border shining through.
For something different Magellan’s Blue Grass (Elymus magellanicus) is short and has silver blue leaves throughout the season. He is clump forming and doesn’t spread (unlike his cousin, Lime grass which is very invasive). He will produce some welcome seedlings as well.
I see I’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities of ornamental grasses. Look out for other brilliant varieties at a Plant Hunters’ Fair near you.
Janet & I run Special Perennials, our website www.specialperennials.com is full of colour photos and growing tips. We sell by mail order and at Plant Hunters’ Fairs throughout the season. We will be at the 1620’s House and Garden, Donington Le Heath, LE67 2FW on Sunday 22nd March 2020; The National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, DE13 7AR on Sunday 29th March 2020 and at Middleton Hall, Nr Tamworth, B78 2AE on Sunday 19th April 2020. We are happy to bring orders to plant fairs for you to collect. For details of all 40 Plant Hunters’ Fairs coming up during 2020 please see www.planthuntersfairs.co.uk.