gardening with grasses

While on my holiday I was talking to someone about my work as a garden designer. When ornamental grasses came up in the conversation the person I was talking to burst into a fit of laughter. It turns out his dad loved pampas grass and had several in his front lawn which he found hilarious due to what this could mean to some people. Don’t worry, I am not going to be delving into the world of swingers in this blog, but it did get me thinking about how people perceived ornamental grasses in gardens. Many people do not consider using them but I cannot think why. Grasses are amazingly tough plants and many of them need very little maintenance. If chosen wisely they can create a very natural look mixed in the perennial border and give all year round interest.
I recently worked on a garden design project for clients that wanted a low maintenance garden and chose not to have any borders planted up around their large lawn area. Many non-gardeners think that plants take a lot of work, and to be fair to them, some plants do. However, grasses are not one of them, unless they are being grown for a lawn. A lawn needs a lot of maintenance to keep it short, green and weed free. Ornamental grasses in a border with mixed perennials can produce amazing displays of colour and texture. In the summer when the perennials are in flower they dazzle the eye with the vivid colours of red, yellow, pink and blues while the grasses provide texture and soften some of the brighter coloured flowers. In the winter months the flower heads some of the perennials and grasses hold their form through the frosts. As they are hit by the low winter sun they sparkle like diamonds from the scattered light. Most importantly, they do all this with very little or no maintenance!
Why not try mixing in some ornamental grasses into your borders. I promise you will not regret it. Maybe have a walk through Beth Chatto’s dry garden, as I recently did with my mother who came to visit, to see how they can be fitted in amongst your other plants. Here are a few of my favourites that would work well in most gardens.

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ – This is a brilliant up-standing grass that grows to just under 1m tall. It forms a dense clump and can be used to hide a fence or create a wind barrier in the border.

Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ – I have just planted one in the centre of my small garden. It will grow up to 2m in height, however most of the height is from the flower stems which form spikelets of feathery flower heads. This allows the flowers behind this grass can still be seen through the foliage. A similar plant I like to use for this is Stipa gigantica.

Pennisetum orientale – This is a stunning little fountain grass growing 0.5m in height and producing soft bottlebrush flower heads from mid-spring right until the first frosts. A big hit with the kids!

Garden design with Grasses

Beth Chatto’s dry garden showing how perennials can be grown alongside ornamental grasses to great effect.

Stipa gigantica growing in front of the eucalyptus tree in Beth Chatto's dry garden.

Stipa gigantica growing in front of the eucalyptus tree in Beth Chatto’s dry garden.

Beth Chatto's dry garden showing how perennials can be grown alongside ornamental grasses to great effect.

Beth Chatto’s dry garden showing how perennials can be grown alongside ornamental grasses to great effect.

Clalmagrostis 'Karl Foerster' looking tall and handsome in Beth Chatto's dry garden.

Clalmagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ looking tall and handsome in Beth Chatto’s dry garden.

Stipa gigantica looking amazing in the summer sun in Beth Chjatto's dry garden.

Stipa gigantica looking amazing in the summer sun in Beth Chjatto’s dry garden.