Tag Archives: Chionochloa rubra

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 Court Garden after its second summer

August 2018

I am turning my attention back to refining the new Court Garden. How did we manage before digital cameras? They make it so easy to track change. This was where we started with a blank canvas.

August 2019

A year later and I had done most of the planting and the steps were in place. If you look carefully, you may see some little spots of yellow. I drifted many dwarf narcissi through to add early spring interest. This winter will be my last chance to locate them and remove them before they are forever swamped in the grasslands.

October 2020

This is how it looked when we opened for the garden festival last spring, when we had completed the paths. It was the first viewing by members of the public and most visitors loved it.

March 2021

This is the same view, four months later. The growth has been well in excess of what we expected. This is the result of planting into fresh ground although the soils would not have been particularly fertile after being under nursery weedmat for three decades. We have not fertilised anything. Nor did I use compost to enrich the soil. We did, however, cultivate the ground before planting and mulch afterwards. While planting, I squished a gazillion grass grubs that I unearthed as I went.

Chionochloa rubra

Despite my best effort to get the spacings right as I planted. the mistakes are now clear, mostly because I underestimated how large the plants would get. You can see from the markings on the path, how far out the grass stems are sweeping. I am fine with a bit of softening overhang but I also want to be able to walk through without getting wet legs. I need to move the right hand chionochloa back half a metre. Fine tuning, I call it.

Stipa gigantea and ox-eye daisy at the beginning of November

Again, thanks to digital photography, it is easy to track plant combinations through the seasons. I have been surprised that some have held for a good four months. This is just a simple combination of Stipa gigantea (golden oat grass) and ox-eye daisies as it looked when we opened the garden at the beginning of November.

Stipa gigantea and oxeye daisies in mid December

The same view in December. Aren’t those simple daisies simply glorious? As this mass display passed over, I cut them back to the rosettes at ground level.

This is the same spot in February. The daisies are having a second flush and i think if I get my timings right, it may be possible to get a third flush each year. The stipa has also held onto its sterile flowers and I did not expect these to hold for over four months.

Stipa gigantea and Verbena bonariensis in mid December

Back in mid December, I was delighted by the chance combination of a Verbena bonariensis that chose to seed in this spot by Stipa gigantea. I even took a short video of the gentle movement which was everything I aimed for in this garden but my tech skills let me down sometimes and I can’t work out how to upload it to this platform.

Same plants in late February

This is the same scene, two and a half months later. Still pretty, albeit past its fresh flush.

NZ toetoe and Chionochloa flavicans at the start of November

Who still declares that our native plants are boring? Mark said we must have our native toetoe in what is essentially a grass garden. I bought three plants on TradeMe (our equivalent of Ebay) and from memory, I think they are Austroderia fulvida. We have five species native to this country. The smaller plants are Chionochloa flavida, often sold as ‘dwarf toetoe’ although they are a different plant family.

Four months on

Four months later, the flower plumes are still holding, albeit a little tired as we go into autumn. This is not unreasonable on their part.

I think I am ready to give an interim report card on the key plants used in this garden but that will have to wait for another post. It will take another few years before I feel confident to recommend based on longer term performance but some trends are already clear. Pretty much all the plants used are readily available in this country.

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