Tag Archives: Anemanthele lessoniana

Groomin’ grasses

The Court Garden in winter

I do not subscribe to the notion of no maintenance gardening. There is low maintenance gardening, lower, lowish, high and very high maintenance gardening. The grasses are generally on the lower side of the spectrum.  

Before on the Stipa gigantea

I certainly don’t groom ornamental grasses in wilder, more naturalistic settings but the Court Garden requires some quite precise maintenance to keep its looks, although it is not usually onerous. This train of thought came about because I have been grooming the Stipa gigantea and that has been more major than I anticipated. At least I have worked out that every established clump is putting up maybe 40 flower spikes which is a lot, really. But there are 24 large plants of it in that garden (yes, I counted!) and every one takes up to an hour for a thorough dead heading and grooming out the dead leaves with a few also needing to be reduced in size. It is not such low maintenance and it is entirely optional but the plants do look tidier for it.

and after on the Stipa gigantea. There is at least half a barrow load per plant removed.

The lowest maintenance option are the deciduous grasses that just get cut down to the ground. That is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’. We also cut down Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and ‘Overdam’ which are not deciduous but look pretty scruffy and of no merit by late autumn. We have plenty of other evergreen plant material in that garden that gives winter interest and, when cut down, the calamagrostis return with pristine fresh foliage in spring.

Cut to the ground. Maybe don’t try this with clumps that have yet to establish well because you may run the risk of them rotting out over winter but ours are now solid plants.

If you have a very sharp spade and sufficient strength, it is possible to reduce the size of the clumps when they are cut down without having to lift the plants and disturb the roots. I have our Zach with a sharp spade to do this very job, as he has done on the calamagrostis last week and will do on and miscanthus that are looking too large when we cut those down soon.

A simple tool, cheap enough and sometimes sold here as a flax cutter. Along with my homemade arm protectors and garden gloves.

For cutting down grasses or perennials, buy yourself one of these very handy little tools with serrated teeth and a curved blade. I think I bought my latest one described as a ‘flax cutter’.

Chionochloa flavicans at the front with an unnamed red phormium or flax and the rather large Austroderia fulvida or proper toetoe behind.

Our native Chionochloa flavicans (dwarf toe toe) has a reputation for ‘whiffing off’, as Mark is wont to say. In other words, it grows beautifully for a few years and then starts dying out. I feel that the proper toetoe we grow – Austroderia fulvida – is showing signs of the same trait and I put it down to a build-up of detritus and dead foliage in the middle of the plants. In the wild, it will be part of the natural cycle; in the garden, we don’t want to cope with half dead plants needing replacement. My theory is that if I keep the plants cleaned out, they won’t suffer that fate. Ask me in five years’ time if I am right on that. I cleaned the plants up in summer, after flowering. The chionochloa were fine to do and did look better for it. The mature toetoe were not much fun to groom because, like a number of our native grasses, they are a form of cutty grass and cut they do. I always wear gloves and I also covered my arms but my ears, my ears! Those very long leaves can cut ears readily. At least it is only a once-a-year job.

The adjustable metal leaf rake, long handled hand rake and flax cutter

The Stipa gigantea does not cut flesh and is probably fine to be left without intensive grooming. I have never done it this thoroughly before so maybe it is overkill or maybe just something to do every few years. You can take the Monty Don of BBC ‘Gardener’s World’ approach and just use your hands as a comb to pull out the dead leaves. He doesn’t even wear gloves that I have seen so I guess they don’t have cutty grasses. I have used the metal leaf rake before and that does a pretty good job when you have room to move around the plants. This time I got in for a thorough clean using our useful little hand rake that you won’t be able to buy at the garden centre. Mark tells me it once  belonged to his father but that he replaced the broken handle with a beautifully whittled, sanded and oiled handle that is longer than the original. Not only is this a useful implement for getting in to plants, it is also very nice to handle.

Chionochloa rubra
Anemanthele lessoniana

A few of the grasses don’t need much attention at all – notably our native Chionochloa rubra (red tussock) and Anemanthele lessoniana (gossamer grass). They may need digging and dividing every few years to reduce their size in a garden situation, but they don’t need routine maintenance, bar weeding out the many self-sown seedlings of anemanthele. It is the only prolific seeder we are using in the Court Garden. The miscanthus throws a few seedlings; the stipa is sterile; the others I have yet to find seedlings of (a thick mulch discourages seed germination) but the anemanthele… It is just as well it is both native and has merit because it certainly seeds down.

Ralph

Finally, may I introduce Ralph? Ralph came to us from the city pound. He is a little larger than our usual grade of dog but he has settled in here instantly with no doubt that this is his home. Life is terribly exciting for Ralph with so many interesting smells. He is constantly on the move outside and most of my photos end up being a passing blur. But he makes us laugh and it seems that everybody loves a scruffy dog. Come the evening, tired Ralph decides he is now a lap dog and that can be a bit challenging with one his size.  Engaging but challenging.

Ralph, briefly sitting down to order, in the Wild North Garden – or dog heaven as he prefers to call it

The grass report

I feel sufficiently confident to give an interim report on the grasses I have used in the new Court Garden although it will take another few years before I can give a definitive verdict. These are bigger growing grasses because we had the space and I wanted an immersive effect that wraps around when we walk through the area.

The site is the hottest area in our garden but, being lowered, it can also be frosty in winter. Cold air flows down to lower levels to settle. The ground is typical free-draining, Taranaki volcanic soils that do not become water-logged and never dry out entirely. We haven’t added any fertiliser and once planted, we never water. The area is mulched with wood chip.

Chionochloa rubra – commonly known as red tussock but this form is only brownish red in winter

Chionochloa rubra – NZ native so evergreen. It takes first prize for graceful form because it fountains out from a narrow base and that form makes it a real star in the winter garden. Its flowering is relatively insignificant but I don’t have to groom the plants to remove dead sections. We started with just one plant and I kept dividing it, which it does easily. I have never lost a plant. It needs space to be able to appreciate the graceful form and the best plants are now 120cm high with a spread up to 2 metres.

Chionochloa flavicans, sometimes sold as ‘miniature toetoe’ though it is a different family

Chionochloa flavicans – also a native, sometimes referred to as ‘miniature toetoe’, so evergreen. At its best in spring but holds its showy flowers right through until autumn. Rabbit fodder when young. Has the reputation of ‘whiffing off’ unpredictably and it certainly doesn’t appreciate being crowded by other plants. Again, we started with a single plant and kept dividing. I have overplanted it so will lift the lot shortly and split the plants, replanting fewer and at wider spacings. I am hoping that by dividing, it will stimulate more growth and delay any inclination to ‘whiff off’. Plants are now about 75cm high and up to 140cm wide.

Anemanthele lessoniana or NZ wind grass, sometimes gossamer grass (you can see the ethereal flowers in pink tones) in the borders before I moved it over to the Court Garden
Anemanthele after moving – it turns golden under stress and it was still hot weather when I moved these plants but I expect them to recover

Anemanthele lessoniana – another native – so evergreen – with a vase shaped habit of growth and more colour variation in the foliage. Lovely in bloom with a cloud of fine flower heads. I had this in the twin borders but the plants were getting too large so I have now moved them to the Court Garden. When stressed (and my plants have often been stressed as I have lifted and divided them to increase the number from the original three), it turns an attractive gold but I will need to groom the foliage to remove dead thatch when the plants make fresh growth. It has reached about 90cm high and up to 140cm wide.

The tall plumes are the austroderia – NZ toetoe and a better choice than Argentinian pampas

Austroderia fulvida – toetoe so another evergreen native.  Very large growing and too early for me to comment on its longer term performance. I bought three small plants through Trade Me and they have already reached 1.7m high and 2.4 metres wide.

Stipa gigantea I have referenced countless times. It, too, is evergreen in our conditions and I  give it the occasional groom (by hand or with a leaf rake) to remove dead foliage. Excluding the tall flower spikes, it is about 80cm high and 160 cm wide as it matures. It divides and increases easily so just start with a single plant but you do need a certain critical mass to have sufficient to share with the sparrows. We found the pesky birds stripped the blooms in the first season and the whole reason for growing this grass is for its showy, long-lived flower spikes so that was disappointing. This year we have had plenty to share with the birds. The foliage has a glaucous tint which is a contrast.

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ to the left with the plumes still looking good after four months

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster‘ – I have written about this before. It is such a strong grower, spreading at an alarming speed, that I reduced it down to just six plants which I am hoping I can keep in check by root pruning on an annual basis. By root pruning, I mean getting a very sharp spade and cutting back the size of the clump without digging it all out. That way, I can get the spreading fresh growth off it. This works because it makes its new growths on the outside of the clump. It is evergreen in our climate but the foliage looks pretty scruffy by the end of season. I am pretty sure I cut it back hard last winter so the spring growth was all fresh and lush. It is one of the first grasses to flower in spring and those lovely plumes hold all summer and into autumn. It is all about the plumes because the foliage and form are nothing remarkable.

That is what I think is ‘Overdam’ in the front right, Stipa gigantea behind

Calamagrostis ‘Overdam‘. At least, I think it is Overdam. It was given to me. It is strong growing too, but not as threatening as Karl. It has the same lovely plumes but the bonus of clean, variegated foliage which stays looking fresh through the season, somewhat like a lower growing variegated miscanthus, though it spreads sideways rather than up. It will likely need root pruning, too.

Miscanthus is a lovely grass from spring onwards but the glow of those white plumes in the low winter sun is nothing short of amazing

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’. Look, we started with one plant in the garden years ago that just sat, grew annually and fell apart because it needed dividing. As soon as I started dividing it (done variously with a sharp spade, an old handsaw or a small axe), it responded by growing with huge enthusiasm. I overplanted badly and need to take out at least half of the plants but as it is all about the plumes in late autumn and early winter when they glow white in the low sun angles, I will wait. The plants are around 1.7 to 1.8 metres high with flower spikes on top of that so it is very tall. If it is divided often enough, it will stay together – falling apart from the middle is a sign it needs dividing. It is fully deciduous, fine leaved and variegated. Mark is sure that the old foliage has potential for thatching but he has yet to test this theory. This is the only grass that I have spotted seeding down so far but the seedlings are easy to pull out when small.

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ on the right, giant miscanthus on the left

Miscanthus whatever whatever – may be just a larger growing form of sinensis with a wider leaf but it should be called Miscanthus giganteus variegatus. The leaves are wider and with a most attractive, clean variegation but the vigour and size is daunting. We ended up digging out three massive plants because I couldn’t hold them together and, as they fell apart, they blocked the path entirely. This is a triffid of a grass. Gardening friend, Susan, suggested that maybe the way forward is to do the Chelsea chop on them – cut them back to ground after the first big flush. I think she is right and I will be cutting them back to ground level about mid November. The second flush of growth should be more compact and shorter. If I can’t keep them under control this way, they will have to go. The plants are too big for me to lift alone and I don’t want to commit to plants that need lifting and dividing annually.

Just too big – they grew even larger and floppier after I took this photo

Lomandra We had a named variety in the garden but I found a better option to replace it with. I rate lomandra as one of the world’s more boring plants and I suggest you leave lomandras to supermarket carparks and roading roundabouts. We have more interesting and attractive native grasses without having to resort to this utility Aussie in NZ gardens.   

Here endeth the interim grass report. Except to say that I am moving and dividing some now because we still have at least six to eight weeks of the growing season left before temperatures drop and growth slows or stops over winter. That said, I have done this in winter and we can get away with it but it is not recommended in less benign conditions where the plants may just sit and decompose in sodden, cold soils.

The ongoing quest for perfection

Auratum lily time

Some people like to plant a garden once and leave it. But some of us plant, look, think, weigh up what we have and then decide on action. I am not referring to minor tweaking and culling a few superfluous plants, more akin to major rejigs. I have two in mind, or maybe three. Always there is that quest for something close to perfection even while we know perfection in a garden that is growing will generally be ‘on the day’ only.

The lily border – wonderful but it could be better still

It is auratum lily time and the lily border is magnificent. But it could be better. I planted it in the winter of 2017 so this is its fourth summer. There are a couple of gaps that I thought I needed to fill; I have plenty of lilies I can relocate. But I have looked again and again and decided that it is time to dig the whole thing and replant it – but not until the lilies are going dormant in late autumn. When I first planted it, I put in large bulbs at about 15cm spacings – from the edges of the bulbs not the centres. When planted fairly deeply and spaced, the stems are strong enough to hold themselves up, even when topped by massive blooms. I do not want to have to stake these lilies. There are hundreds of them. Some areas are now so dense with offshoots already of flowering size that they are leaning on their neighbours and not standing upright. When they get too dense, the glory of individual blooms gets lost. It is time to lift the bulbs, cultivate the soil and respace them for next season, discarding the small offshoots. That’ll keep me busy for a week in autumn; there are about 30 metres of lily border.

Our NZ grass, Anemanthele lessoniana looking lovely with echinaceas but it is getting too large for its allocated space

In the herbaceous borders, I have been looking at the Anemanthele lessoniana with some concern. It is a native grass and one of our prettier ones with its orange tones in the foliage and light, feathery flowers with a hint of burgundy. But it festoons as it matures, rather than standing upright and the plants are now taking up a space with a diameter of at least 120cm and swamping their neighbours. It is too big for the borders. I shall relocate the plants into the grassy Court Garden and give them the space they want but it will leave some big gaps behind. I am wondering whether our native Poa anceps will make an acceptable substitute.

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ is an absolute star in late autumn and early winter – this was late afternoon on June 6, 2020

And I am spending a lot of time looking at the Court Garden. Just in its second year, I can see mistakes I have made. There are Too Many Miscanthus. M. ‘Morning Light’ is a wonderful grass and generally well behaved, a magical autumn mainstay, but I have badly overplanted them. For longer term management, I need to cull up to half of them to give the remaining plants room to star. We only ever started with one plant of it but boy, does it respond to being dug and divided.

Probably Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegata’ is proving altogether too vigorous here

I am looking in askance at the giant, variegated miscanthus (it may be Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’ or Japanese Silver Grass) that a friend gave me. Last year, I managed to keep the plants upright simply by tying a circle of jute string around each plant. They are too big for that this year, in just their second year. I don’t want to be digging such huge plants every second year in order to keep them manageable so I may reduce it down to just one or two specimens and weigh up their long term viability. Does their showiness outweigh the heft and effort needed?

Stipa gigantea still starring after a full three months in flower in the middle ground. The plant at the front is Elegia capensis

What a star Stipa gigantea has been this year. It is all about the flower heads – golden oat grass – and because it is sterile, the flowers have stayed and stayed. After three months, they are still looking terrific. But, I can see I still have them planted too closely, despite culling half of them after last summer. As it matures, the plants can be anything up to a metre and half across and they look best standing in their own space. I need to take out a few more and centre the remaining ones so they don’t overflow onto the paths. It is all about having a critical mass with this stipa, so there are enough flowers to share with the marauding sparrows. They stripped them bare last season but this year they have flowered in abundance, with no evident decline in sparrow numbers. We clearly achieved some sort of balance of critical mass.

Our native Chionochloa flavicans also still flowering after 3 months but I am unsure how gracefully the plants will age

I have an open verdict still on whether Chionochloa flavicans will last the distance with us. It has the reputation of ‘whiffing off’ – dying out in patches – and it is too early to tell yet. At least I know I can use the anemanthele to replace it if I need to. Chionochloa rubra remains splendid but its time to star is in winter when it is the dominant form. In summer, it is less obvious amongst showier grasses.

It is going to take me ten years to come up with a reliable recommended plant list for this style of gardening but it is a lot of fun getting there. And I am fine with using two dominant exotic grasses (the stipa and miscanthus) when almost all the other grasses are natives. We are not native purists here, we like to mix and match but it is also satisfying to use our indigenous plants as equals in a garden setting.  

As I have said before, digging and dividing is way easier if you do a little often because the ground stays friable, making the digging part much easier. If you don’t want to have to dig and divide, plant trees and shrubs, not perennials.  

Miscanthus to the left and to the right – rather too much of it and they appear to be wanting to meet in the middle

Thugs in the garden

I am surprised by how strongly Iris sibirica grows in well cutivated soils and full sun. I have moved the discoloured Xeronema callistemon behind the iris to the right to a more protected position 

Thugs. Not trugs.

We are cautious here. We do not want to unleash plants that threaten to become weeds and therefore become maintenance nightmares. Some plants that set seed rather too freely (like Orlaya grandiflora, Verbena bonariensis and the perennial forget-me-not, Myosotis scorpioides) fall into this category, but they are easy to pull out if they are seeding in the wrong places. Other plants are far more difficult because they wriggle their roots below ground to entwine anything in their way – not unlike couch grass but considerably more decorative. The pretty, blue Salvia uliginosa and Japanese anemones are examples. These are the plants that we are really cautious about placing and controlling.

And then there are the thugs that stand four square and strong and will swamp anything in their way. Thugs need space of their own. Preferably permanent space because some of those thugs can get too large to handle easily in a short space of time. Learning to garden with sunny perennials is teaching me quite a bit about thugs.

Chionochloa rubra, not a thug but seen to best advantage when allowed to stand in its own space

When I planted up the new Court Garden a few weeks ago, I removed such thugs from the herbaceous borders to relocate in the bigger space of the new garden. They are all good plants but way too strong for the congeniality of an herbaceous border. Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’, Elegia capensis and the large growing salvias were the main thugs that I had used extensively. I also relocated all the Chionochloa rubra, not because it is a thug but because it needed more space to allow it to star in its graceful glory. And Stipa gigantea because it was underperforming in the herbaceous borders and I thought it might be better en masse in its own space.

Raiding the borders left some big gaps, and indeed some large holes. No problem, I thought. I had additional top soil to fill the holes and plenty of plant material to fill the spaces and it seemed a good opportunity to tweak a few areas in the borders which I felt were a bit messy – more messy-matrix than dramatic swathes of plants. I figured all I had to do was to consolidate the areas where I had tried to fill in spaces with additional material. A bit of fine-tuning.

I am sure most gardeners will understand that situation where what we think will be a relatively small project escalates into a major operation. This is one of that ilk. For I found the second tier thugs. These plants have only been in two and a half years and for the first two years, I was simply delighted at the quick result achieved in these borders started from scratch. Gardening with sunny perennials was a completely new experience and so rewarding. Yes, well….

Phlomis russeliana to the left, Elegia capensis to the right with Lomandra ‘Tanika’ in the middle

I am now looking in askance at some of the plant selections. Great plants, but they are going to take a bit more work to keep them that way than I had anticipated because, boy, are they strong growers in this situation. Phlomis russeliana – Turkish sage – with its attractive, tiered yellow flower spikes, has quietly flowered away in our woodland without problems for decades. Moved into full sun and well cultivated soil, it has formed massive underground root systems and overgrown tops in a very short space of time. Iris sibirica – wow. Admittedly, I planted large chunks of it in the first place rather than separating the rhizomes and in springtime, it is simply glorious – so much so that I wanted to add new varieties and colours. Hmmm. All that foliage flops over in autumn, smothering nearby plants and it has to be cut back eventually because it doesn’t even pull off easily. I thought it would be a good time to dig and divide them. It took all my strength to get these plants out of the ground and I ended up with mountains of them. I replanted them as individual rhizomes and mulched with compost. In replanting the same area, I ended up scrapping at least two thirds of them as surplus. And each patch of maybe three or four square metres takes about a day and half to do. I have done four blocks, I have two left to do and I got rid of the seventh block entirely. That is a lot of labour input and time to just one plant type.

And the lomandras. These are tidy, Australian evergreen grasses. We only have two different ones and probably started with a single specimen of each because Mark never buys the same plant in multiples. They kicked around the old nursery area for years, unloved, uncared for, waiting for someone to find them a forever home. That should be a clue as to how tough they are.

The compact dark green lomandra (with freshly divided phlomis to the left). It will be a named clone; it is just that we lost the name

The compact, forest green variety (name has been lost in the mists of time) is very good. And very well behaved. The very dark green colour contrasts well with everything, really. I wouldn’t mind it growing a little taller in this situation – it is only knee high – but it is very tidy. Not a wow sort of plant but excellent in the chorus line of back up vocals.

Too much Lomandra ‘Tanika’

The other one we have is Lomandra ‘Tanika’ which is widely marketed in this country. It is larger growing, sort of anonymous mid-green and what is called a reliable performer. It is one of those bullet-proof plants where you start, as we did, with one, put it in good conditions and next thing you know, you have eleventy thousand of it if you want to divide it. Enough to fill a traffic island or a motorway siding, even. It looks attractive in form for the first couple of years but if you don’t lift and divide it, it threatens to become an overgrown, overblown thug.

The autumn hues of our native Anemanthele lessoniana – also evergreen

I can’t get too excited about the lomandras. While they can be tidy plants, they lack the flower power of showier grasses and they are bit, well, utility. Space fillers. Evergreen and they stay looking the same all year round, which, I admit, some people see as a desirable trait. I am scaling back ‘Tanika’ – composting about 80% of it. It has another two years to win me over but at this stage, I think I would prefer to replace it with our native Anemanthele lessoniana which fills a similar niche but with more foliar interest and lower maintenance requirements.

What I thought would take maybe four or five days’ work – filling the gaps in the herbaceous borders created by my earlier raid – has turned into several weeks. I am quite happy doing this because it is an active learning exercise but I don’t think I want to be doing it as routine maintenance.

The lesson is that there is no substitute for trialling plants in situ and making some major calls when it comes to swapping some selections out for others.  It is why other people’s plant lists are a guide, not a manual, especially if they are overseas recommendations. There is fine line between plants that are sufficiently strong growing to hold their own in herbaceous plantings and plants that are too strong to grow in happy congeniality.

Oh, and give plant thugs the space they need or don’t use them at all. Otherwise they will swamp out other plants of a more refined disposition.

At least the Iris sibirica star in spring, even if they are going to take ongoing work to keep them from smothering their neighbours