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