Tag Archives: Stipa gigantea

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.

Calamagrostris ‘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.

 

A garden of grasses. Mostly.

The grass garden at Bury Court

The grass garden at Bury Court

It is interesting to reflect on gardens over time. Sometimes a garden that makes you go ‘wow’ on the day is not the one that endures in the memory. In fact, not wanting to be too dismissive, but it is a rare garden that stays in the memory for long after a single visit.

That is Mark, not the owner, at Bury Court

That is Mark, not the owner, at Bury Court

The grass garden at Bury Court has endured for me. So much so, in fact, that it has inspired me to start a grass garden here.  Bury Court’s grass garden was by leading UK designer, Christopher Bradley-Hole but credit must also go to the garden owner, John Coke, whom we didn’t meet but had certainly stamped his mark on the other areas of the garden which were early Piet Oudolf. It is not that I want to recreate that grass garden which was full of soft, waving, tall grasses in informal plantings but contained within a sharp-edged, rectilinear design with a charming Japanese-influenced summer house at its centre. I am just using it as inspiration.

Anybody who has looked at gardens in the UK and Northern Europe over the past decade or maybe nearing two, will have seen the extensive use of grasses in perennial plantings. It is variously described as ‘prairie planting’, ‘New Perennials’, ‘naturalistic gardening’, ‘Sheffield School style’, ‘Oudolf- inspired’ and, no doubt, other terms as well. The bottom line is that it is the integration of grasses with flowering perennials in various styles and combinations and it has yet to catch on in New Zealand. Towards the end of our last trip in 2014, we started counting the ratios and it was common to see 3:1 – three flowering perennials to one grass. The Bury Court grass garden was 1:8 – that is one flowering perennial to eight grasses. The effect was very different and the movement of the tall grasses a delight.

A blank canvas of about 250 square metres (I paced it out)

A blank canvas of about 250 square metres (I paced it out)

I have been incubating ideas for the past three years. In an old garden, it is rare for us to be in a position to start a new area from scratch but that opportunity has arisen. Somewhere over 250 square metres of empty space in full sun with good drainage, in fact, that I can get down on for my grass garden. But we need that amount of space for we envisage B I G grasses waving in the breeze and when each plant will take up probably a square metre, that chews up the space. We have enough highly detailed garden here already, so we are looking at bigger canvas garden pictures with lower maintenance. That is the plan, anyway.

Stipa gigantea, with phlomis, at Wisley. Lovely ethereal seed heads but unproven in our conditions

Stipa gigantea, with phlomis, at Wisley. Lovely ethereal seed heads but unproven in our conditions

Our native toetoe, or cortaderia

Our native toetoe, or cortaderia

We have been given some plants of Stipa gigantea, beloved by UK gardeners. It remains to be seen if it will perform in our conditions, but I have put the first nine plants out. Also our native toetoe (which used to be a cortaderia but has now been reclassified as an austroderia) which will grow here and is our native version of the pampas grass often used overseas. Pampas (Cortaderia selloana) is on the totally banned list where we live, be it pink or creamy pampas. I have a very large miscanthus that I will relocate and divide in winter and a few other different grasses we have gathered up over the years but never found a suitable spot for. In using some of our native grasses and the Australian lomandra, there is an immediate difference to what we have looked at overseas. For our grasses are evergreen and theirs are generally deciduous. That is a big difference. Deciduous grasses give a fresh new look every spring whereas evergreen grasses hold their dead leaves so they don’t look as pristine but they are present all year round.

Aurelian lilies in abundance here

Aurelian lilies in abundance here

In terms of flowers, it will be a restrained palette. Mark has raised a lot of Aurelian lilies (clear, bright yellows and few in orange) that flower in early January and are desperate for a forever home in the garden. They will be number one, planted in groups of five. I have no idea how many there are out in his vegetable garden waiting to be lifted – maybe 80 flowering sized bulbs or so?

Crocosmia - from left: the roadside weed known as montbretia which is way to invasive to introduce to the garden, a spectacular large orange form that unfortunately does not increase quickly at all, yellow and orange forms and red 'Lucifer' for the new garden

Crocosmia – from left: the roadside weed known as montbretia which is way too invasive to introduce to the garden, a spectacular large orange form that unfortunately does not increase quickly at all, yellow and orange forms and red ‘Lucifer’ for the new garden

For mid summer, the crocosmias can add spots of colour and I may use the pure red and pure yellow tigridias too. We have a giant, autumn flowering yellow salvia that towers over 2 metres high so needs big space. I think that will fit in. Self-seeding, towering fennel (I like fennel flower and seed heads), a tall, creamy yellow alstromeria and that might be it for the initial plantings. The grasses are to be the prime focus in this new area.

Fennel, seen as a roadside weed here but I think it will fit well in the grass garden

Fennel, seen as a roadside weed here but I think it will fit well in the grass garden

Being gardeners, not designers, we are working from gut instinct and experience, not a formal plan. We are debating about whether to turn it into a gravel garden by using fine gravel as both mulch and path surface but that is a bit further down the track. We happen to have a small mountain, almost a mountain range, even, of fine gravel that would be suitable if we decide that is a good idea.

It is not instant gardening. Because it is dependent on plants, not hard landscape features, it will take time to fill in and mature. But that is in the nature of long term gardening – gradual evolution rather than instant gratification.

And a weedy carex - at least we think it is a carex, that we are hand digging to remove from both the new garden and the park. Decorative seed heads but way too badly behaved and invasive

And a weedy carex – at least we think it is a carex, that we are hand digging to remove from both the new garden and the park. Decorative seed heads but way too badly behaved and invasive

Postscript: A Facebook follower says of that weedy carex above: “Eek, that weed is a Cyperus eragrostis ( I think) type of sedge.” We are in complete agreement that it is a menace.

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.