Tag Archives: gardening with grasses

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.

One year on – the Court Garden

April 25, 2020

I say one year, but that is from when I first started planting the new grass garden. Much of this is only eleven months. I took this photo last Saturday, April 25.

May 16, 2019 

May 16, 2019

These photos, taken from either end, are dated May 16, 2019. We still haven’t filled the steps or laid the path surfaces but the plant growth has been phenomenal. New ground – plants love new ground. I expect the rates of growth to slow.

I planted at what I intended to be final spacings and there is only one section that I have put in too closely and will need to reconsider. The rest, I think, will be fine for some time. Mark would like more flowers so I am working in a bit more colour as I find plants that I think will be able to compete. The giant Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) which the bees and monarch butterflies love is the next to move in.

I was worried that I had too much Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ until I took a closer look this morning. There are only four waves across the whole garden and I don’t think that is too much. It is just that it is very dominant at this time of the year. It is a brilliant tall grass and only throws up a few unwanted seedlings.

Big miscanthus flopping after only 10 months 

All it took was three lengths of jute string to restore order and form

A friend gave me a larger growing form of miscanthus, similarly variegated but with a wider leaf. It was too large for her and fell apart too readily. It is an excellent looker but I worried when even the fresh divisions started to fall apart and flop onto the paths as early as January. I don’t want plants that I have to dig and divide every year. The solution was simple. I tied a string around each clump, just a length of anonymous jute string that is not visible. A five minute job solved the problem.

I would like more large grasses for variety but have failed to source additional options so far. They are obviously not that popular in this country. I looked at Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’ which is available and rejected it. The variegation looks too much like spray damage to me.

For those of you who are interested in grasses, I offer this update on performance of others I have used:

Chionochloa rubra (our native red tussock) is brilliant. My favourite grass of all. It needs space around each plant so that its attractive fountaining habit can be admired.

Chionochloa flavicans is often described as a miniature toetoe though it is a different family. I had a lot of trouble getting plants large enough to survive sustained attack from rabbits. Mark has shot 34 of those cursed bunnies so far this summer and most of the plants are now large enough to withstand future attacks. If you can control the munchers, it does indeed look like a small toetoe in flower though it is pretty anonymous in leaf and form.

Proper toetoe are now classified as austroderia and I think it is A.fulvida that I sourced through Trade Me – the only three plants I had to buy for this whole new garden. They have grown ten fold since I planted them but that is fine because I gave them space. I am looking forward to their flowering next year.

Stipa gigantea (Golden Oats) – an attractive enough grey-green, fine-leafed grass but the main appeal is their ethereal, large flower heads on tall spikes. The wretched sparrows took out every one of the main flowering but they have persevered and continued to put up new flower spikes. It appears to be sterile.

Miscanthus, as mentioned above, is a key feature and the only fully deciduous grass I have used. We started with just one established plant which was elsewhere in the garden and I have lifted and divided it over three years to get as many as I want. It doesn’t need to be divided that often but I wanted more plants.

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ I took out of the twin borders because it is too rampant. I thought it may be fine in the more spacious grass garden but it is too rampant. It is beautiful when it puts its flowers up in late spring but it is altogether too strong, spreading rapidly with its expanding root system. I am thinking I will take every second plant out this autumn and look to replacing it altogether as soon as I find a less vigorous alternative.

If any readers have other suggestions of tall grasses that are available in NZ, I would be pleased to hear.

Planting the new court garden

A big, blank space. Bamboo stakes are used to define the areas to be be cultivated and to get the curves right. 

In the world of gardening, I am not sure that there is much that is more exciting than starting planting a new garden which has been years in mental incubation. Indeed, I am surprised how positively thrilling I am finding it to be out in the space actually putting the plants in.

It is a blank canvas, what we refer to as the court garden, on account of it looking like a tennis court when it was just an open space. We have talked about it a lot, stood and looked at the space and mentally envisaged the possibilities – which were pretty much endless – for this open, sunny area. Having narrowed down the plan, I set about refining the plant palette and building up the material to go in. As Mark has observed in the past, ours started as a poor man’s garden. His father could not afford to buy in all the material to plant up the large garden across several acres so applied himself to raising a lot of it. These days, rather than a poor man’s garden, it is an economical couple’s garden. It would cost a lot to buy in all the plants needed to fill over 450 square metres and they would arrive as small specimens. I have been gently building up plants for a few years now so what are going in are reasonable large divisions. Instant effect, Mark calls it.

This is to be my contemporary grass garden, inspired by the work of Christopher Bradley-Hole at Bury Court  but different. Immersive, not pictorial, to coin the phrase of English writer, Tim Richardson. It is set a little lower than surrounding areas so we step down into it to be surrounded by the movement of large grasses, shoulder or head high, planted in waves. A prairie on steroids perhaps? It is not designed to be viewed from a vantage point so much as to be experienced within.

Doryanthes palmeri (which will grow much larger) with Stipa gigantea

I have planted the first waves using Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, Stipa gigantea, Chionocloa rubra and Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’. And I have found a suitable space for Doryanthes palmeri. The next two waves will be Elegia capensis and Astelia chathamica. I do need to buy in about three plants of our native austroderia, commonly known as  toetoe. For, as Mark says, what is a grass garden in New Zealand if it lacks toetoe? I have sufficient plants for a wave of Chionocloa flavicans (which looks like a smaller toetoe) but I am not pinning my hopes on that because it seems to be like Christmas dinner for the rabbits and I am learning that I must garden that area with the rabbits, rather than fighting them all the time. It is one of the very few plants I am using that we have not trialled and come to understand already.

Moody miscanthus in the autumn light . It will be on a much larger scale in the new garden

Once I have planted all the waves of grass, then I will paint within with the few flowering plants I plan to use – the giant autumn-flowering salvias in yellow and red, tall yellow Verbascum creticum for spring, the very tall white nicotiana we have seeding around the place, maybe foxgloves in white and fennel. Nothing small, nothing detailed, no bulbs except the huge Albuca nelsonii. I expect the large evening primrose to find its way into the area of its own accord and I am sure Verbena bonariensis will seed down from the neighbouring borders. But the flowering plants are all secondary to the movement of the grasses.

Mark is rotary hoeing. The vintage piece of equipment in front is his prized Planet Junior that he uses often.

For those of you who are interested in the mechanics, Mark killed off the weeds and dead-headed the nasty carex we have through there to reduce future seeding. He is currently rotary hoeing the area. I drew up a planting plan and expected to be out there with my large piece of graph paper, keeping fairly closely to that plan. But in practice, it is just a guide. My spacings on paper were too close. My eyes on the ground are better than a paper plan. I rake out the rough-turned sods and then lay out each wave and sometimes I dig the plants back up again to move them a little to change the angle or the spacings. I am constantly mindful that this must be a low maintenance area. We have quite enough high maintenance areas already.

We won’t mulch immediately. Because our soils are so wonderfully friable, we will allow the first couple of flushes of weeds to germinate and rake them off. Weed control from the start is critical, especially with big grasses. Only then will we mulch. I have decided against the fine gravel mulch I had thought I would use. I am sure I will have to refine the plantings at least once in the early years and don’t want all that gravel incorporated into the soil. Neither do I want sharp edgings to the paths (which are about 1.8 metres wide to allow for plant flop). I want it to be more seamless so the current thinking is that we may opt for a granulated bark mulch which can be spread across both garden and paths. That we will have to buy in by the truckload.

We should see results this summer in our soft growing conditions and by the second summer, it should be hitting its stride. I am optimistic. Sure, it is hard work but if you are into active gardening, this is probably the peak of fun.  The culmination of years of thinking and planning and something entirely different. I will keep readers posted on progress.

Postscript: I am a dirty-kneed gardener. Mark laughs at me and regularly tells me I should not be allowed indoors. Indeed, I often shed my trousers in the laundry before I enter the house. Don’t tell me about knee pads. I have tried them and they don’t suit me. I have an abundance of kneeling pads but unless it is wet, muddy and cold, I find it easier to wash my clothes than constantly re-position the kneeling pads.

What I don’t understand is how Mark stays so clean, despite gardening as much as I do. Well I do know. He either uses long-handled tools or squats. My gardening mother stayed clean by always bending. With dodgy knees and a dodgy lower back, I kneel. Kneelers with dirty knees unite, I say.

What a difference a year makes (flowering through 12 months)

November 2017

When I first started writing about our new sunny borders last year, a reader commented that she would be interested to see how we managed year-round interest in them. Because, in colder climates, and particularly the UK where we drew inspiration for this project, gardens are not expected to perform all twelve months of the year and most of the herbaceous material is fully deciduous. Most gardeners in cold climates put their gardens to bed for the coldest months and retire indoors to their very warm homes, or at least to the shelter of the garden shed if they are determined. Expansive herbaceous plantings leave huge gaps in winter and nobody expects them to bloom all year round.

Early December 2017, still very new

It is different here. So much of the plant material we use is evergreen and we expect to be wowed by something every week of the year. I tried to make sure that I photographed this new area each month to track the performance and today I went through and organised the photos by date so I could see the sequence. February is missing! What happened in February? I am hoping I just miss-filed February’s photos because I am sure there was plenty going on in the gardens, it being full summer.

March 2018

It is also interesting to track the growth as the borders filled out. Planting was mostly done in late winter and spring last year – so July to November.  I had to stop over summer because the hose doesn’t reach that far so I could only plant after rain. From memory, we had a particularly wet spring followed by an unusually hot, dry summer extending well into autumn.

April 2018

Rather than list what is in bloom each month – plant lists can get very dull – I would comment that even I am surprised at how much bulb material I have added to get that seasonal spread and I shouldn’t be surprised because it is me who has planted every single one of them. Ixia, babiana, sparaxia, narcissi, snowdrops, crocosmia, moraea, albuca, Aurelian lilies, ipheion and more have all found their home here but in clumps, not drifts or dots.  Even the somewhat coarse blue Dutch iris and a pure yellow gladiolus that looked crass in the more refined rockery look right at home in this bigger and bolder planting.

The stand-out plants for length of blooming season are the echinaceas (from December to May) and the kniphofias (from October to April). Verbena bonariensis, alstromeria and hemerocallis also give extended blooming to justify their places.

May 2018

So what happens in the quietest months of the year? In the late autumn of May, the grass plumes are beautiful. The echinacea, salvias and plectranthus are the major providers of colour. Finally I have a place for those giant, thuggish salvias that can reach well over two metres tall and they certainly come into their own in April and May.

June 2018

June is the quietest month and the grass plumes of the miscanthus are particularly beautiful with the lower light angles. But already the new season is starting. We have a backbone of pretty Camellia yuhsienensis with its michelia-like blooms and it starts flowering in June.

July 2018

July is our bleakest, coldest month but already there are the camellias in full bloom (we have five of them scattered along one side) and the extensive avenues and surrounding hedges of michelias (particularly ‘Fairy Magnolia White’) are coming into flower. This is also the month when our most successful snowdrop – Galanthus S Arnott – flowers. I planted just a few in one patch but I now think I might bulk up one section with it because it would give a winter white garden with no other flower colours in evidence.

August 2018

By August, we are warming up. The early narcissi are in flower; my trial patches of ‘Peeping Tom’ made me smile each time I saw them. Many plants are already springing into growth and by September, we are in full swing again.

Dutch iris and moraeas in September

The garden is still in its early stages, just a year down the track. We have yet to do the paths which I want covered in soft honey coloured hoggin, which I discovered is crushed limestone. Mark still wants to move the propagation houses often seen to the side of the photos and that may take another year or three. But the garden borders, they are getting to where I want them. I am at the tweaking stage now, the foundations are all in place.

October 2018 The propagation sheds to the left are planned for removal

None of this would be possible had I kept to a very restricted plant palette. It is the range of material we can grow that makes these borders work all year round. What knits it together visually are the repeated large blocks of key plants like the Iris sibirica, yellow Phlomis russelliana, Dietes grandiflora and Albuca nelsonii and the rhythm of a limited range of large grasses threaded throughout. Within this solid framework, other plants are in defined clumps, not scattered cottage-garden style.

There is no hard landscaping and next to no ornamentation in these borders and I have no plans to add any. The plants can carry the day here. Every day.

November 2018 

And just a year ago – November 2017