Grasses, anyone?

 These are New Zealand grasses, seen at their best in a North Devon garden, Wildside


These are New Zealand grasses, seen at their best in a North Devon garden, Wildside

Grasses. There is nothing new about using grasses in the ornamental garden. So why are they being hailed as one of the hallmarks of the New Perennials Movement? It is how they are used, not what is used and that derives from the whole prairie and meadow inspirations which underpin the new styles of freer planting.

It is not without its pitfalls, NABS even. That is the Not Another Bloody Stipa.

Stipa gigantea looks ethereal seen here with phlomis but it looks equally ethereal in everybody else's garden

Stipa gigantea looks ethereal seen here with phlomis but it looks equally ethereal in everybody else’s garden

Stipas are beautiful, feathery grasses. It is just that they seem to be in every single UK garden, particularly Stipa gigantea, also known as giant feather grass (it is large with ethereal golden spires of seed heads) and Stipa tenuissima which is soft with shimmering ripples in the lightest of breezes. The latter is often called Mexican feather grass and has now been reclassified as a nassella, not a stipa. It is a bit of a shame that it is already on the Weedbusters website in this country as a pest.

The shimmering Stipa tenuissima, seen here with alliums, but not a good choice for New Zealand where it has already been determined an invasive variety

The shimmering Stipa tenuissima, seen here with alliums, but not a good choice for New Zealand where it has already been determined an invasive variety

The good news is that grasses are easily substituted and there are many excellent options which are not dangerously invasive. Some are even native to this country. We saw one garden making extensive use of a New Zealand chionocloa. The English have a love affair with Argentine pampas grass. Both Cortaderia selloana and jubata are on our banned list but we have a ready substitute in our native toe toe.

We are guilty of being a bit sniffy about grasses generally in the past. We put this down to the over-use of our native varieties in particularly stodgy and unimaginative amenity plantings from the 1980s onwards. What we learned is that it is how they are used that makes all the difference. Let them get some size and they add the dimension of movement to a garden in all but dead calm conditions. They also provide a superb foil to other plants, particularly larger flowering bulbs, annuals or perennials.

Rivers of a grass at Scampston - a little too conceptual for our gardening taste

Rivers of a grass at Scampston – a little too conceptual for our gardening taste

Alas we did not think to start counting until quite late in our trip but I can tell you that the ratio of flowering perennials to grasses in the Oudolf river borders at Wisley was 3 to 1. However the Oudolf rivers of grass at Scampston were 0 to 1. That is to say there was only the one grass used and no perennials at all. We didn’t like it. It was contrived – part way between temporary show garden and motorway siding. A conceptual garden, perhaps? In contrast, the elegant grass garden at Bury Court was closer to a 1 to 8 ratio. The complexity of multiple different grasses and a scattering of flowering perennials gave much more visual interest and variation with movement.

Mostly we saw bold grasses of some size, integrated with other perennials in sunny conditions. Problems come when similar grasses are used in all herbaceous plantings. It can make them look very similar, as we realised after looking at a number of gardens. There is a school of thought that this is good because it unifies a garden but we have never subscribed to that belief. We will be choosing to keep the use of mixed grasses and perennials to one garden only, not repeated throughout. I also think the 3 to 1 ratio is quite low. We are more likely to go for maybe 5 flowering plants to each clump of a decorative grass. But then we prefer more detailed plantings.

Nowhere, dear reader, did we see tidy little grasses being used as tidy little edgings. I will be happy to see New Zealanders move on from the thinking that a row of tidy mondo grass, blue festuca or liriope will define a border nicely. I am afraid it will just make your garden look suburban and straitjacketed.

Mark, standing in the elegant grass garden at Bury Court

Mark, standing in the elegant grass garden at Bury Court

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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6 thoughts on “Grasses, anyone?

  1. akismet-cc86e69a13119f6a42f5deab97c402e6

    Well, you are plants-people first and foremost? Not sure I would dismiss Scampston planting as shown so lightly. It’s stylish and that is a rare quality in gardens.

    I’d like clarification – are you saying the English gardens you saw were samey ? Or that many people were repeating plantings within their gardens and that you don’t like that because it’s too samey? Personally I like some coherence in a garden and it can be hard to find.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      How interesting that you categorise us as plantspeople first and foremost. That is certainly not how either Mark or I would describe ourselves. However, it must be said that we lose interest very quickly if a garden lacks plant interest amongst its key attributes. And that a very good garden requires a high level of plantsmanship along with good design and an element of creativity.

      When you look at a relatively large number of gardens in detail over a short period of time, there is a certain sameness that creeps in where the same palette of plants is used. The gardens that stick in the memory are those that bring extra elements to the mix in terms of originality, strong design and…plantsmanship. There are certain inherent risks in repeating key plants through one’s own garden in the quest for coherence when that plant is very strongly represented in pretty much everybody else’s garden too. That is if you prize individuality. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter at all.

      1. akismet-cc86e69a13119f6a42f5deab97c402e6

        Apologies, as you don’t think of yourselves as plants people. But for us it’s the use of plants which is paramount, not what they are or how unusual. I guess that’s our difference then. Xx

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        Anne, you are the only person I know who uses the term plantsperson as a putdown! I guess that is what I was reacting to. Yes of course we are plantspeople. Yes we do like to use unusual and different plants in our garden. Of course we do. This is a garden created by two generations of plant breeders. Yes, the plant material we use in our garden is a key point of difference for us. We must agree to differ on the merit of this position. :-)

  2. Pat Webster

    Having visited most of the English gardens you’ve mentioned in recent times, I’ve been particularly interested in your comments. I’m planning to visit Scampston (so will form my own opinion on its plantings) and Gresgarth next year. Are there other gardens you visited in that general area that are worth a detour? And which of the many you saw sticks in the memory?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Most memorable? The front terrace at Mount St John, the romanticism of Gresgarth, the personal imprint at Bury Court and Wildside. And we stll love the Oudolf borders at Wisley and the Tom Stuart Smith plantings in front of the glasshouse, running into the Hitchmough meadow are beguiling. If you can get into Mount St John in Yorkshire, do, but I think they rarely open so it may not be possible. I would have liked to have seen Leven’s Hall (north of Gresgarth, from memory – the one with all the ancient topiary) but we ran out of time. The other gardens we saw in the area were either strictly private or not necessarily in the must- see class.

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