Tag Archives: Stipa tenuissima

Stipa gigantea

Stipa gigantea towering against the sky

When we made our treks across the world to look at summer gardens, there were three plants that were standout performers we were keen to try here – Stipa gigantea, thalictrum and veronicastrum. Oh, and the giant blue-purple alliums but we are not going to pay the big dollars per bulb they command here. The reason they are so common in English and European gardens is because they can buy the bulbs very cheaply from Dutch growers.

We have a pink thalictrum that is doing fairly well, though it has only achieved waist-high altitude and does not look as though it is going to get much beyond that. The sole veronicastrum – the only success after three attempts with the finest seed Mark has had to deal with (he had to get the magnifying glass out to check that he wasn’t just sowing dust) – is growing slowly and seems to be a plant for the long haul rather than a quick result. But the Stipa gigantea….

A friend in Christchurch sent me a few divisions. I have no idea how long it has been in NZ or who brought it in but it is not widely available commercially. That may just be a matter of time and demand. The few divisions grew, and grew and grew until we had many. I started with them in the perennial borders but after the first two years, realised they were going to be too large there so moved them into the new Court Garden where the focus is on big grasses. I knew I was overplanting them for quick effect 18 months ago so I removed over half of them last autumn to give the remaining plants space to stand alone. Each plant needs well over a metre of area.

I like the combination of Stipa gigantea with the ox-eye daisy

The foliage is blueish-green in colour and evergreen, forming a soft fountaining mound about knee-high. But the long-lived, towering, golden flower spikes are the reason to grow it and give it the common name of ‘golden oats’. Last year was something of a disappointment because the sparrows stripped the flowers. Apparently, we can out-sparrow the Brits who introduced that little bird to this country. If we were not going to get the flowers, I wasn’t sure I would persist with the plants.

What a difference a year makes. This season, they are magnificent – a major feature in the new Court Garden. It remains to be seen how long they hold with our bird population but I can live with that because they make a big visual statement in late spring before the miscanthus flower. The ethereal golden heads towering above are so light, they appear to dance against the sky.

I also like the stipa with the dark foliaged phormium coming into flower

As far as we can make out, Stipa gigantea (syn Celtica gigantea) is sterile here, which is helpful. We should be able to confirm this later this season. It is also evergreen. A member of the poa family of grasses, it comes from southern Europe. Given its vigorous growth, it is a good thing it is shallow rooted so easy to lift and divide, often falling apart into divisions in the process. A visitor to the garden told me she was trying to buy one but there was a waiting list and each plant was priced at $40 which made me gulp. I briefly caught myself thinking that I could have easily potted up 40 of them sold them at $20 each during our recent garden festival. But we are over selling plants; we do not want to go back there again.

If you really want to have it in your garden, you could contact Janica at Woodleigh Nursery. I see they are saying sold out at this stage but she tells me she has more which will be ready in autumn. She doesn’t price them at $40 either. You only need one plant and a bit of patience. Within two years, you will have all you need. Just give it plenty of space to star.

The other stipa we grow is Stipa tenuissima (syn Nassella tenuissima) which is very lovely and fluffy but comes with a warning. It seeds down so is on the Weedbusters list though not banned, as far as I know. Avoid it if you are anywhere near native bush or indeed farmland. We don’t need more weed pests invading pastoral land. We are keeping it because it is not a problem in a controlled garden situation and does not seed so badly that we have found it to be a pest.

Fluffy mounds of Stipa tenuissima shining in the light with yellow Phlomis russeliana and Iris sibirica ‘Blue Moon’
Plenty of stipa flowers to share with the sparrows this year. Mark says it is the pollen they are after.

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.