Tag Archives: gardening with grasses

Reinterpreting inspiration. The new garden progresses.

The resident cat at Bury Court in 2014. We plan to visit this garden again next month.

I have been planting what I loosely refer to as “my grass garden”. I wrote about this back in February and progress is being made. I have been asked whether this garden has been planned on paper and for a while I felt somewhat shamefaced to admit that it has not. Now I just think experience and instinct will serve me better than a paper plan. Trained garden designers learn to plan on paper and good ones know how to relate open space and proportions to paper measurements. Amateurs do graph paper gardens and then, when religiously followed outside even though proportions don’t translate well, these remain forever looking like graph paper gardens. I have seen this mistake made in other people’s gardens.

This is part of a much larger area that we are gently bringing in to an entirely new garden and Mark did draw up the entire space to get the proportions right for the separate sections. He also staked out the area with bamboo sticks to define the spaces visually before any earth-moving and planting started. The first plants to go in were the structural ones which will give a formal backbone – Fairy Magnolia White in two rows to be pleached in due course, underplanted with Camellia Fairy Blush to be clipped tightly as a hedge. String lines were used to make sure that this formal green structure was straight.

Work starts. A man with a rotary hoe can be a wonderful thing.

My patch is like passage-way to the side of all this, albeit a passage-way in full sun that is about 10 metres wide by 30 metres long; at around 300sqm it is larger than some urban dwellers get in life.  The idea of a “grass garden” has somewhat morphed into “grasses and other plants with long, narrow foliage and spear-shaped foliage”. The plant palette is broadening substantially as I go but still restrained overall, by our standards. “You are not copying the Bury Court garden, are you?” asked friend and colleague, designer Tony Murrell. Well, no.

The grass garden at Bury Court

The hallmark of Bury Court was the sharp edged, geometric design filled with billowing grasses – a signature style of English designer Christopher Bradley-Hole. No hard-edged design in mine. We want even the path to meander informally without sharp definition.

From memory, Bury Court’s garden is fully deciduous in that English and Northern European style. We just don’t do fully deciduous gardens in New Zealand. Our climate is milder but also our native flora is almost 100% evergreen so we think in terms of foliage and flowers all year round. My ratio is probably closer to 60% evergreen and 40% deciduous.

Not exactly Bury Court but planting has started

Bury Court’s garden was, I am guessing, big budget. What we lack in budget, we have, I hope, made up for in sustained thought and discussion over a fairly long period of time, along with the trialling and analysis of most of the plant material. At the back of my mind, I keep repeating some of the points made by Tim Richardson in the book I reviewed recently. “Immersive, not pictorial”, I say to myself. These are not twin herbaceous borders. They are an antipodean interpretation of the New Perennials movement and I chant like a mantra the words ‘rhythm’, ‘drifts’, ‘billowing’, ‘repeats and echoes’. It is a whole new approach to composing with plants for me.

Because we are not buying in the plants but relocating them from other areas in the garden and from small accumulations in the nursery, it is more work digging and dividing than simply knocking out of pots. But I am also starting with larger plants and with the luxury of plenty of plant material. I repeat again, a lot of thought has gone into the plants to be used – a few years of thought and observation.

We have never seen gardening as instant gratification and there is much work to be done in this new area before we are ready to share it in a few – or maybe several – years’ time.

Radio Live has now set up a separate site with Tony Murrell’s Home and Garden Show audio and photos so it is a whole lot easier to find than before. Last Sunday, Tony and I were talking about hybrids and species. Coming up this Sunday, we are discussing cottage gardening. I tell you, I leap down the stairs as my alarm rings 6.23am, make myself a cup of tea and am sitting wide awake and firing on all cylinders for when the phone rings at about 6.32. These are relatively extended discussions we have and it takes quite a bit of combined concentration, especially at that hour of the morning. For me it is a new skill to be focusing my mental energy on a radio discussion rather than on writing – often the ideas are similar but the process and skills in communicating them are very different. It is probably why I have not been writing as much recently.

Finally and entirely unrelated, I give you flowers for no reason except to share the pleasure. It is tree dahlia season again.

Grasses, anyone?

 These are New Zealand grasses, seen at their best in a North Devon garden, Wildside


These are New Zealand grasses, seen at their best in a North Devon garden, Wildside

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.

Stipa gigantea looks ethereal seen here with phlomis but it looks equally ethereal in everybody else's garden

Stipa gigantea looks ethereal seen here with phlomis but it looks equally ethereal in everybody else’s garden

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 shimmering Stipa tenuissima, seen here with alliums, but not a good choice for New Zealand where it has already been determined an invasive variety

The shimmering Stipa tenuissima, seen here with alliums, but not a good choice for New Zealand where it has already been determined an invasive variety

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.

Rivers of a grass at Scampston - a little too conceptual for our gardening taste

Rivers of a grass at Scampston – a little too conceptual for our gardening taste

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.

Mark, standing in the elegant grass garden at Bury Court

Mark, standing in the elegant grass garden at Bury Court

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

Gardening with grasses

We were entranced by the Piet Oudolf borders at Wisley

We were entranced by the Piet Oudolf borders at Wisley

Years ago I was editing garden descriptions and amongst the plethora of developing gardens or tranquil havens filled with birdsong, I came across one which claimed to have “a fascinating collection of grasses.” Fascinating seemed to be overstating the case. I think I toned down the adjective. It has taken a long time to win us over to the merits of grasses here, even though we have some lovely native varieties in New Zealand.

Big grasses need big space

Big grasses need big space

I have never actually seen grasses used in a breathtakingly beautiful way in gardens in this country though I have seen some handsome amenity planting combinations. The problem lies, I think, in how we use them. For starters we tend to limit ourselves to varieties which are knee high or lower. Even worse is the habit of forcing innocent grasses into an edging role where they are destined forever to be like an untidy fringe. And yes, mondo grass (both black and green), liriope, Carex Frosted Curls and blue fescue – I’m looking at you here. Grasses by their very form are designed to grow in the round, not to be forced into a narrow row as an edger. Nor indeed do I understand the obsession with uniform edging plants on all garden beds and borders in this country but that is another matter.

It wasn’t until we went to look at summer gardens in the UK that we were won over by grasses. We had heard slightly disparaging comments about the Piet Oudolf twin borders at Wisley (the RHS flaghip gardens) – a chevron design in grasses, I think somebody told us sniffily. It wasn’t that at all. Twin parallel borders were united by rivers of colour and texture flowing from one to the other with grasses featuring along with other plantings. Not knee high grasses, these were at least waist high and integrated with other carefully chosen perennials. It was an inspirational planting.

On the same trip, I saw the most exquisite grass I have ever seen at Beth Chatto’s garden. I don’t even know if Stipa barbata is in this country but it was light, ethereal and remarkably beautiful. Since then, we’ve seen grasses featured frequently in British TV garden programmes. One of the reasons we subscribe to Sky is to get gardening shows on the Living Channel.

Early view of the Wisley Oudolf borders before the glasshouse was built (from Penelope Hobhouse's book "In Search of Paradise" - magic

Early view of the Wisley Oudolf borders before the glasshouse was built (from Penelope Hobhouse's book "In Search of Paradise" - magic

The common threads to making these plantings work are:
1) Inspired combinations. Grasses are not planted with other grasses. They are integrated into mixed plantings which are carefully managed to look naturalistic in style. Grasses don’t generally suit formal plantings.
2) Forget grasses which are ankle high to knee high. Statement clumps are at least waist high and often considerably taller. This of course means they need quite a bit of space.
3) Big grasses plus big plantings result in a big effect. It rarely scales down effectively. Therein lies the problem – not that many of us have the space to garden on this sort of scale. Those of us who do have space (and it needs to be sunny, well drained space), have usually cluttered it up with mixed plantings including trees and shrubs. These exciting perennial plantings using grasses are usually only perennials, not mixed borders. The aforementioned Oudolf borders at Wisley are around 150 metres long by 11 metres wide – each. While that is on a grand and public scale, you really can’t expect to replicate it in miniature in a border which is only a metre wide and three metres long.
4) Many of these successful plantings have their origins in a garden interpretation of American prairies. It is a managed but not manicured style of gardening. It is some distance away from the classic herbaceous border and it is a long way away from the formal garden rooms genre we have adopted so enthusiastically in this country. It does not combine well with clipped hedges.

Set the grasses free. That is not original. I read it somewhere and it was a NZ writer though I can’t recall who. Stop trying to straitjacket them into contrived and managed combinations. If you have your grasses in a situation where they require grooming and regular combing, it is likely that you are straitjacketing them.

We were told that the Oudolf borders we so admired at Wisley required only a third of the labour input that the classic herbaceous borders needed. Partly that is because they don’t need staking or deadheading. They are cut down in late January (for us that translates to the end of July or late winter). I imagine by that stage they are quite scruffy so it is not a style that will appeal to tidy gardeners. But despite that scruffy stage, these prairie styled plantings contribute a great deal to the ecology of an area, feeding birds and wildlife. It is different to wildflower meadows in that it is managed plantings in varied combinations, often within a somewhat formal layout and with tight weed management. It is not random or self sown. This is not a style we seem to have picked up on this country. We are still mulling around as to whether we have the right position to try.

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