Tag Archives: gardening with grasses

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

Change of plan

Verbascum creticum, a tall, large flowered biennial

We have spent a fair amount of time and energy examining meadow gardens and wildflower gardening over the years. It is not something we want to embark on lightly. With our growing conditions, the potential for unleashing a weedy mess is high. But crunch time is coming. What to do with the central court in our new garden? We do not want an actual tennis court. Nor do we want more lawn. We want something naturalistic, ecologically sound, relatively low maintenance and preferably wildly romantic.

Last year, I was still thinking of meadow-style and saved seeds of various large biennials and annuals that we could possibly use – Verbascum creticum, white foxgloves, nigella, even the red poppy. It takes A LOT of seed to sow an area as large as this and it was going to be expensive if we had to buy small packets to make up the chosen mix.

Flagged that plan. I may try it further out in the garden but in a smaller area. In the future. Maybe. This central court is too prominent and too large to experiment with random ‘wildflowers’ (not wild in NZ of course). It HAS to work rather than be experimental and to work in the longer term without creating a maintenance headache.

Dunnett at Trentham

While I would love to try the perennial meadow style pioneered by Nigel Dunnett and the Sheffield Movement (Pictorial Meadows) that so entranced us at Trentham last year, I also know our limits. That work is the result of years of experimentation, learning and analysis by the protagonists and the plant selections are what works in the UK. We would be starting from scratch to find what works well and how to manage it in our very different climate and growing conditions. It may also look rather flat and contrived in a tightly contained garden rather than linking to the wider landscape with natural landform.

A blank canvas of about 450 square metres

This court area is about 15 metres wide and at least 30 metres long. It is a rectangular, formal shape bounded by a low brick retaining wall (still under construction) and the long sides defined by formal plantings of Fairy Magnolia White (to be pleached in due course and clipped hedges of Camellia Fairy Blush. The steps still await construction, as do the large pergolas Mark really (really, really) wants at each end. It is flanked on one side by the new grass garden and on the other by the equally new lily border and the caterpillar garden, all of which I have written about in the last year.

Each plant in its own space in Beth Chatto’s dry garden

The solution lay in what I have referred to as the grass garden. It isn’t really the grass garden that I envisaged at the start. It isn’t even the summer garden we initially called it, though it looks good in summer. It also looks good in spring, different but equally pleasing in autumn and has enough interest to carry it through winter. Basically, it is more an example twin herbaceous borders in a modern style, showing influences from a number of contemporary designers with some debt to Beth Chatto’s dry garden. I add Chatto, because we eventually worked out that one of the aspects that makes her dry garden so charming is that each plant stands in its own space, not jostling for room and melding into its neighbours as in classic herbaceous plantings where one aim is to have no ground space visible.  It is that individual space that not only gives a very different feel – lighter, more spacious, when done with skill –  but also makes maintenance far easier.

Miscanthus in winter in the new borders

There is a school of thought that digging and dividing perennial plants is an unnecessary activity, devised by those who like to make work. And that may be true in some climates and some styles of gardening – an extension of the no-dig garden philosophy, even. One thing I have learned from experience is that if you dig and divide often, it is not a big task to be feared. It is digging over-large plants in hard, compacted soils that is difficult and heavy work. I had to get Lloyd (who does the heavy work here) to dig out the enormous Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ clump that I then cut up with an old hand saw to get about a dozen sizeable pieces. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to such rough treatment but they thrived and looked good all year. They are still standing, erect and pale and have not been beaten down or fallen apart in heavy rain and wind, as well-established clumps often do.

This week, I plan to dig and divide all the clumps of large grasses that I planted at this time last year. I shall report further if it turns out to be harder than I expect it to be, but the ground is still well cultivated and friable and I am not anticipating a killer task. I have promised some divisions to a colleague but there will be A LOT of miscanthus, Stipa gigantea and Calamgrostris ‘Karl Foerster’, along with our native Anemanthele lessoniana, toetoe (now an austroderia but formerly known as a cortaderia) and a large but graceful brown tussock that we have yet to find the name of. And there is the solution for the new court garden.

An immersive experience at Bury Court

It is to be the new grass garden, drawing on lessons learned from both Piet Oudolf and Christopher Bradley-Hole. In that large, geometric area, confined by a hard-edged boundary, I envisage an immersive experience – wandering informal paths through plantings that are shoulder high (at least when in flower), predominantly grasses. Waves of grasses (the Oudolf influence) in a limited selection. With just a few tall Verbascum creticum and foxgloves in white and pale apricot (we have both a-plenty) and maybe Ammi majus and some white daisy type plant which I have yet to find.  But the big grasses will be the feature. So more ‘New Perennials’, or modern prairie on steroids than meadow.

It will take a year or two to build up enough plants to fill the area. But now that I have a plan, I am impatient to get started. The first task will be to clear the area of grass and weeds and then rotary hoe it. It will happen. It just won’t be instant.

Postscript: I have zero intention of lifting these grasses in the court garden every year. They will be planted and left,  with maybe a cut around the outside from time to time to reduce the spread.

Ammi majus

 

 

 

 

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.