A garden of grasses. Mostly.

The grass garden at Bury Court

The grass garden at Bury Court

It is interesting to reflect on gardens over time. Sometimes a garden that makes you go ‘wow’ on the day is not the one that endures in the memory. In fact, not wanting to be too dismissive, but it is a rare garden that stays in the memory for long after a single visit.

That is Mark, not the owner, at Bury Court

That is Mark, not the owner, at Bury Court

The grass garden at Bury Court has endured for me. So much so, in fact, that it has inspired me to start a grass garden here.  Bury Court’s grass garden was by leading UK designer, Christopher Bradley-Hole but credit must also go to the garden owner, John Coke, whom we didn’t meet but had certainly stamped his mark on the other areas of the garden which were early Piet Oudolf. It is not that I want to recreate that grass garden which was full of soft, waving, tall grasses in informal plantings but contained within a sharp-edged, rectilinear design with a charming Japanese-influenced summer house at its centre. I am just using it as inspiration.

Anybody who has looked at gardens in the UK and Northern Europe over the past decade or maybe nearing two, will have seen the extensive use of grasses in perennial plantings. It is variously described as ‘prairie planting’, ‘New Perennials’, ‘naturalistic gardening’, ‘Sheffield School style’, ‘Oudolf- inspired’ and, no doubt, other terms as well. The bottom line is that it is the integration of grasses with flowering perennials in various styles and combinations and it has yet to catch on in New Zealand. Towards the end of our last trip in 2014, we started counting the ratios and it was common to see 3:1 – three flowering perennials to one grass. The Bury Court grass garden was 1:8 – that is one flowering perennial to eight grasses. The effect was very different and the movement of the tall grasses a delight.

A blank canvas of about 250 square metres (I paced it out)

A blank canvas of about 250 square metres (I paced it out)

I have been incubating ideas for the past three years. In an old garden, it is rare for us to be in a position to start a new area from scratch but that opportunity has arisen. Somewhere over 250 square metres of empty space in full sun with good drainage, in fact, that I can get down on for my grass garden. But we need that amount of space for we envisage B I G grasses waving in the breeze and when each plant will take up probably a square metre, that chews up the space. We have enough highly detailed garden here already, so we are looking at bigger canvas garden pictures with lower maintenance. That is the plan, anyway.

Stipa gigantea, with phlomis, at Wisley. Lovely ethereal seed heads but unproven in our conditions

Stipa gigantea, with phlomis, at Wisley. Lovely ethereal seed heads but unproven in our conditions

Our native toetoe, or cortaderia

Our native toetoe, or cortaderia

We have been given some plants of Stipa gigantea, beloved by UK gardeners. It remains to be seen if it will perform in our conditions, but I have put the first nine plants out. Also our native toetoe (which used to be a cortaderia but has now been reclassified as an austroderia) which will grow here and is our native version of the pampas grass often used overseas. Pampas (Cortaderia selloana) is on the totally banned list where we live, be it pink or creamy pampas. I have a very large miscanthus that I will relocate and divide in winter and a few other different grasses we have gathered up over the years but never found a suitable spot for. In using some of our native grasses and the Australian lomandra, there is an immediate difference to what we have looked at overseas. For our grasses are evergreen and theirs are generally deciduous. That is a big difference. Deciduous grasses give a fresh new look every spring whereas evergreen grasses hold their dead leaves so they don’t look as pristine but they are present all year round.

Aurelian lilies in abundance here

Aurelian lilies in abundance here

In terms of flowers, it will be a restrained palette. Mark has raised a lot of Aurelian lilies (clear, bright yellows and few in orange) that flower in early January and are desperate for a forever home in the garden. They will be number one, planted in groups of five. I have no idea how many there are out in his vegetable garden waiting to be lifted – maybe 80 flowering sized bulbs or so?

Crocosmia - from left: the roadside weed known as montbretia which is way to invasive to introduce to the garden, a spectacular large orange form that unfortunately does not increase quickly at all, yellow and orange forms and red 'Lucifer' for the new garden

Crocosmia – from left: the roadside weed known as montbretia which is way too invasive to introduce to the garden, a spectacular large orange form that unfortunately does not increase quickly at all, yellow and orange forms and red ‘Lucifer’ for the new garden

For mid summer, the crocosmias can add spots of colour and I may use the pure red and pure yellow tigridias too. We have a giant, autumn flowering yellow salvia that towers over 2 metres high so needs big space. I think that will fit in. Self-seeding, towering fennel (I like fennel flower and seed heads), a tall, creamy yellow alstromeria and that might be it for the initial plantings. The grasses are to be the prime focus in this new area.

Fennel, seen as a roadside weed here but I think it will fit well in the grass garden

Fennel, seen as a roadside weed here but I think it will fit well in the grass garden

Being gardeners, not designers, we are working from gut instinct and experience, not a formal plan. We are debating about whether to turn it into a gravel garden by using fine gravel as both mulch and path surface but that is a bit further down the track. We happen to have a small mountain, almost a mountain range, even, of fine gravel that would be suitable if we decide that is a good idea.

It is not instant gardening. Because it is dependent on plants, not hard landscape features, it will take time to fill in and mature. But that is in the nature of long term gardening – gradual evolution rather than instant gratification.

And a weedy carex - at least we think it is a carex, that we are hand digging to remove from both the new garden and the park. Decorative seed heads but way too badly behaved and invasive

And a weedy carex – at least we think it is a carex, that we are hand digging to remove from both the new garden and the park. Decorative seed heads but way too badly behaved and invasive

Postscript: A Facebook follower says of that weedy carex above: “Eek, that weed is a Cyperus eragrostis ( I think) type of sedge.” We are in complete agreement that it is a menace.

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5 thoughts on “A garden of grasses. Mostly.

  1. Pat Webster

    This is exciting, Abbie. I’ll be watching with great interest as you and Mark experiment and create something that suits you and your environment. Aren’t you lucky to have such a large space to work in, that seems ideal for what you want to do.

    As for Bury Court, it is indeed inspirational. I’ve been there three times over the years but never late in the season so I’ve never seen the Bradley-Hole garden at its peak. When I was there last May, John was starting a new section below the early Oudolf garden, on what was still an open hillside. I hope I’ll be able to visit again when that section has developed.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Oh Pat, you are such a rewarding commenter. Thank you. We are off back to Europe and UK in June and early July this year – maybe we should consider going back to Bury Court for another look. The focus for this visit is Ninfa (because we have never seen it but so many people whose judgement we trust say we must) and some of the Dan Pearson gardens in the UK because we are really interested in that whole soft-edged ecological style of gardening. But there is a gap in France. We know next to nothing about France but were so utterly charmed by the countryside and people on our last visit that we thought a week in some rural-ish area would be fun. Do you have a knowledge of the country, based on your extensive travels? In which case, which area would be most rewarding for garden visiting within an 100k radius or so? Not so interested in the traditional parterres and vegetable arrangements with the grand chateau – more in domestic gardening done with skill and innovation. Any advice gratefully received.

      1. Pat Webster

        You caught me at my computer, taking notes for the talks I’ll be giving on my tour in May. I’m taking the group to Plaz Metaxu and Wildside — two gardens that couldn’t differ more. Both will be new to me so I’m quite excited. I think you’ve been to Wildside. Have you visited Plaz Metaxu?

        As for France: A few years ago I spent a very happy ten days or so in and around Rouen in Normandy. Le jardin plume could be particularly interesting to you now because of your own grass garden-to-be. Rouen itself is charming, Bayeux and the tapestry close by. Plus many other gardens worth visiting. Le Bois des moutiers is a Jekyll-Lutyens gardens; it was closed because of weather so I haven’t seen it. Vasterival is a 20th c gardenesque garden with some glorious shrubs and trees. Didier Wirth’s Italinate garden at the Chateau de Brécy is well worth a visit. I saw it in the rain and loved the atmosphere. Shamrock specializes in hydrangeas; I didn’t visit it but am told it is interesting. L’Agapanthe is praised by many; I saw some things I liked but many I didn’t — but a single visit isn’t a basis for a firm judgement so I’d return.

        I’ll be very interested in your response to Ninfa. I’ve been twice and thought it was fine the first time and loved it the second. The unfortunate part is being trooped around, sometimes by an excellent guide, sometimes not, but always aware of the school groups and never with a chance to sit and absorb what you see. If you can arrange it, go as well to the nearby La Torrecchia, a garden originally designed by (or with input from, depending on who you talk to) by Dan Pearson. The setting is similar to Ninfa, and while the garden shares many qualities, the feeling the two evoke is somehow quite different.

        Happy travels!

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        No, we haven’t been to Plaz Metaxu but we would happily return to Wildside. Thank you so much for your French recommendations. It seems that basing ourselves near Rouen seems a good place to start. I had heard about La Torrecchia but I can not see that it is possible to get in to as individuals. I suspect it is strictly events and larger groups only, these days. I had heard that about Ninfa though there is a possibility that a UK contact can get us a personal tour from one of the key people there. Fingers crossed. It is a long way to travel to be trooped around with the masses…
        Kindest regards, Abbie

  2. Pingback: Reinterpreting inspiration. The new garden progresses. | Tikorangi The Jury Garden

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