Tag Archives: Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’

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

Seven days from the winter solstice – Tikorangi this week

IMG_7033

The white form of Dahlia imperialis

The last tree dahlia of the season is in bloom. Dahlia imperialis alba plena is the towering giant of them all, way up in the sky, not blooming until well into winter so particularly vulnerable to frosts and winter gales. I took this photo yesterday to show those in other climates the intensity of winter light that we get here on sunny days. It is different to those who garden where the winter sun hangs lower in the sky. We are not tropical; I don’t want to mislead. It is almost mid-winter and can be quite chilly. However, it is a lot less depressing to the spirits when you live somewhere with this clarity of bright light, even on the shortest days of the year.

IMG_7045

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ shimmering in the late afternoon light

IMG_7040We are now well into what Piet Oudolf refers to as the ‘fifth season’ and the new Court Garden brings me much pleasure, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is dropping lower and shines through the miscanthus grasses. I have used a lot of miscanthus running through the garden in waves and the plumes shine in the light and wave gently in any breeze.

IMG_7031IMG_7039I have finally found a place where this large yellow salvia can grow with sufficient space and it is a late autumn – early winter highlight. We have never had a name on this variety so if any readers can identify it for me, I would be grateful. It stands a good two metres tall so it is a large plant to accommodate. *** Now identified as Salvia madrensis, thanks readers.

Tips and techniques for the week:

IMG_6920

Stipa gigantea after a major thinning exercise

  • I took a before photo of this block of Stipa gigantea in the new Court Garden but I appear to have deleted it when I was filing photos. It looked fine at the end of its first year but I knew it wouldn’t stay looking fine and it was already too congested to allow the plants to fountain out and show their natural form. Last week, I took out well over half the plants and gave them away. I did have to lift some of the remaining plants to centre them to their own space but I am much happier with it now so it was worth the effort. I haven’t grown this stipa before and hadn’t realised how much space each plant needs. I am hoping this can now be left alone for a few years at least. It has a white field daisy growing between which I have learned I can get two, maybe three successive flowerings from spring to autumn if I cut it back to the base rosette at the right time.

    IMG_7050

    Layering up the prunings at the back, more or less out of sight

  • Out of the ‘I thought it would be a straightforward job that would only take a day and a half at the most but actually took four full days and still isn’t quite finished’ school of thought, I spent this week clearing the wilderness of boundary plantings that separate the caterpillar garden from the boundary with the neighbours’ wool shed and yards. People with big gardens will understand that you have areas which get planted and then mostly left to their own devices. It is one of those jobs you finally tackle when preparing to open the garden to the public again. Nobody will notice I have done it, but they may well have noticed had I not. Over the years, it had become largely impenetrable with self-sown camellias, layered hydrangeas, native seedlings, especially kawakawa and various mounds of vegetation where I had emptied the wheelbarrow of prunings that I didn’t want in the compost heap. It amazes me how far I can get with a sharp pruning saw. Because there was so much of it, I dragged all the debris to the back and layered it by the boundary fence. At some points, it is quite a bit higher than in this photo. It can gently rot down there, adding humus and carbon to the soil and is a lot lighter on labour than carting it all away to compost and mulch. It is a technique we are using quite extensively now and is a tidy, unobtrusive way of dealing with excessive amounts of garden waste. That said, it is a big garden technique, rather than one for small town gardens.

    IMG_7047

    On track to be an undulating, curvy hedge like a moving caterpillar

  • I have started a major clipping round on the hedges in what we call the Caterpillar Garden. The hedge is Camellia microphylla, already nearing the end of its flowering season. The plants were pretty neglected -raised from seed and cuttings many years ago and then left to kick around the old nursery until we were ready to use them. We planted them two years ago and the hedges, laid out in the shape of the basket fungus, are still a bit patchy. Mark’s plan is to clip these hedges into mounded, free-form shapes like an undulating caterpillar in the style we associate strongly with UK designer, Tom Stuart Smith. I am doing the first clip this season and have told Mark it is his job to come through and do the final clip of the top to get the mounding shapes he wants.

    OCcamellias 014

    The straight-edged, hard clipped approach

    Most of our clipped hedges here are very straight sided with the top meeting at right angles. Lloyd does them with a string line to keep the lines straight and the hedges a uniform width. He has a good eye for these things. But after spending a fair number of hours clipping and shaping the caterpillar hedge, I can tell you that it is a great deal easier and more pleasurable to work with a more organic shape and form than that military regimentation of the sharper-edged hedges. Informality is much more forgiving than formality.

Learning from experience: gardening with bigger grasses in NZ conditions

Late March, so autumn of the first year.

We know quite a bit about many aspects of gardening, particularly shade gardening, but gardening in full sun with big, bold perennials is a whole new ball game here and a steep learning curve. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I planned to lift and divide the larger growing grasses that I have used in the new borders.  Of course I am only half way through it. These jobs always take longer than I plan, even factoring in other distractions. But it is interesting to stocktake the performance of these bigger grasses one year on from planting.

Stipa gigantea falls apart into divisions when lifted

Stipa gigantea – the giant feather grass or golden oats. Yes it grows quickly and enthusiastically but is very easy to dig out (not strong-rooted) and pretty much falls apart into divisions when lifted. So it is easy to manage. The flower heads are the feature but while ours bloomed, the sparrows laid waste to them so we did not get the full glory last summer. As far as we can make out, it is sterile so seeding and invasion are not an issue.

It is hard to beat the miscanthus at any time of the year

Miscanthus – I think it is ‘Morning Light’ we have. It required a little more effort to dig it out and an old handsaw and small axe to separate it into pieces but was not particularly difficult. I would not want to leave it too long though, before digging or it would get beyond my physical limits to dig and divide without assistance. It has been a standout. The clumps stand tidily like sentinels and it is brilliant at all stages – the foliage and the plumes. It is the only fully deciduous large grass I am growing and even the pillars of dried foliage have been attractive all winter. It is also close to sterile, setting almost no seed.

Is it Chionocloa rubra? Someone will know but it is a native tussock at least.

Chionocloa rubra – there is a bit of a question mark over the name of this one but a couple of visitors have suggested this identification. A native tussock grass that is performing brilliantly so far in attractive vase-shaped clumps. It is easy enough to dig and divide (more hacking apart with saw and small axe than dividing, to be honest) though I only divided this year to get more plants. It won’t need as much active management as most of the other grasses.

Anemanthele lessoniana is another native grass. It was a little underwhelming in its first year but I am told flowers attractively once established. I started with just three plants so I have divided them after their first year to get more.

The native toetoe (now an austroderia though formerly a cortaderia – our environmentally friendly version of the invasive Argentinian pampas grass) was one I planted a little anxiously, worried about its potential size. I need not have worried. The resident rabbits love it so much that the poor little things have failed to make any headway. I shall have to construct little cages over them if I want them to get any larger. I see we have five different austroderia species native to NZ though which one this is, I am not sure yet.

It appears I failed to photograph the calamgrostris at is peak but it is the third one up on the left in this May scene of late autumn.

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’. Yes well, this one may be on borrowed time. It is scary. I bought several – I can’t remember if it was 5 or 10 because I divided a couple of clumps mid-season when it was clearly growing strongly (about now, alarm bells should be ringing for experienced gardeners). It is a stock grass for the contemporary perennial gardens we have been looking at, mostly in the UK. Our Canberra daughter also said it was the stand-out grass in her little prairie-style patch. And it was most attractive all summer and autumn. Not so in winter where it has been a messy mix of green and brown. It is deciduous in colder climates but not so here. But that is not the main issue.

Added bucket for scale but I also measured and the root systems reached 45cm across in one year. As a quick aside, my kneeling pad of the day is a piece of rubber carpet underlay cut to size. It doesn’t last that long but it comes from waste destined for landfill anyway and while it lasts, it is good.

The plants I bought came in 2.5 litre pots so larger than a liner but not big. Under one year is all it took for each plant to e x p a n d from about 12 or 14m across to somewhere closer to 45cm across. It took every ounce of my determination and strength to dig out the clumps for they were going deep as well as wide. The root ball is solid and dense and that is when I went to find the axe to chop it apart. I raised my eyebrows and started replanting just a few smaller – much smaller – clumps and these reduced in number the further I went. Most are piled to compost. The clumps I replanted are on trial for one more year but in my bones, I know they are on borrowed time. In our conditions, it is just way too vigorous though I am guessing that in harder conditions with dry summers and cold winters, it may just be deemed a ‘strong’ grower. I don’t know if it seeds but I am not seeing seedlings pop up so far. I would say that it may be quite useful if you want to retain an eroding precipice quickly but as a garden plant, try it before getting too carried away. I think I will decide that its powerful growth outweighs the charm of its flowering plumes.

I haven’t tackled the Elegia capensis yet but it can stay untouched for another year. It is a restio so not one of the grasses, though its growth habit and bamboo-like appearance mean it fits a similar niche in the garden. I know from experience that this is one we can contain if required by cutting around with a sharp spade to reduce its spread.

The smaller grasses can wait but the standout smaller variety so far has been a very dark green form of the Australian lomandra. We have several named forms and I am hoping I will unearth the labels when I lift the clumps again (I hate looking at visible plant labels so I tend to push my labels in so deep that I can’t find them again) and the dark forest green one is by far the pick of the bunch. The rest are a bit… utility, shall I say?

The takeaway lesson from all this is we need to trial plants here. That key plants used widely overseas perform differently in our conditions. It is why we buy garden books that cover design, history, philosophy and contemporary trends but never books written by overseas authors which focus on recommended plants and planting schemes. There is no substitute for local experience.

Postscript: I have finally found a home for the Dutch irises. They always looked a bit crass and coarse in the rockery and other areas where we concentrate on species and dwarf bulbs. But they are perfect with the big grasses, Just the right scale. And they bring in colour now in early September when there is not much else happening in that area.