Ornamental grass borders can give you the edge
The upsurge in the use of ornamental grasses as garden plants has mainly been due to the relatively new concept of naturalistic planting. The variety of grasses available is enormous; this is not surprising since they are the most common plant family found on earth.
At Rosemoor, the number of grasses we grow run into the hundreds. One of the boldest is Arundo donax var. versicolor (variegated giant reed) which is not for the faint-hearted. Grown for its striped white and green strappy leaves on stems up to 2m tall, it makes a great architectural statement. In the Foliage Garden at Rosemoor, it combines happily with trees, shrubs and mass plantings of perennials.
The neighbours might think you're mad if you plant Cortedaria (pampas grass) but don't worry, they are making a comeback, and can find a place if you can give them plenty of room. Cortaderia selloana 'Sunningdale Silver' AGM bears long, silky, creamy- white flowerheads which are stunning when the low autumn sun shines through; the effect is intensified when seen against a backdrop of dark evergreen foliage. As with most grasses they provide a fabulous contrast to formally clipped hedges and topiary; in the Foliage Garden grasses soften the straight lines and sharp edges of clipped hedges and pleached hornbeams.
If you need a specimen plant that looks good all year as an accent, to frame a view or to flank an entrance, Stipa gigantea AGM will fit the bill. Although tall, it does not dominate, as you can see through the graceful oat-like panicles to the plants beyond, giving added depth to a border. Many grasses have this see-through quality including cultivars of Molinia, Deschampsia, Festuca, Miscanthus and Chionochloa.
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At the other end of the size scale, we have Stipa tenuissima which is a fantastic front of border plant. This forms a compact, upright tuft of thread-like leaves, with narrow, arching, soft feathery flowering panicles which you cannot help but run your fingers through. The whole plant dances in the breeze; groups of five or more will give a ripple effect as waves on a gentle sea.
Another tactile genus is Pennisetum (fountain grass) which have soft rabbit tail – like flowerheads in early autumn, so plant within easy reach of out-stretched fingers. If planted where the early morning sun catches on the dew collected by hairs on the flower heads, the effect is quite remarkable.
The airy nature of grass flower panicles can act as an antidote to groups of brightly coloured perennials characteristic of prairie style planting. This effect is illustrated in the Hot Garden where the brightly coloured masses of Monarda, Crocosmia, Helenium and Rudbeckia would become indigestible without Molinia, Miscanthus and Panicum to lighten the scheme.
Try Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah', P. virgatum 'Hänse Herms' or P. virgatum 'Squaw' all of which have striking blood red tips to their mid-green leaves. These plants make a great combination with dark leaved plants such as Sambucus nigra or the bright oranges and yellows of Crocosmia, Rudbeckia and Kniphofia cultivars.
One of my favourite grasses is Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' AGM. The elegant narrow leaves finely edged in white add grace to any sunny border. Its versatility is hard to match; plant with brightly coloured late flowering perennials or, for a calmer effect, with white flowering plants to harmonise with the white edged leaves, as in the Spiral Garden.
If you have a shady spot that needs brightening, a yellow cultivar of Hakonechloa is what you need. Clumps of this low growing, shade tolerant plant lighten the Stone Garden on dull days. Another grass that doesn't mind shade is the wood rush (Luzula). We grow a selection in the Rock Gully and alongside the stream to great effect. Similarly, Carex (sedges) are available with bronze, yellow and variegated foliage; they are mostly evergreen which makes them excellent plants to use as ground cover in damp shady sites.
Remodelling the Mediterranean Garden has given us the opportunity to expand the selection of grasses that enjoy well drained conditions. The best of these is annual Hordeum jubatum (squirrel tail grass). The shimmering iridescent flowers create a pink haze until the first frosts. Hopefully they will self-seed until there are too many and we will have to start pulling them out!
Positioning in relation to the sun is all important. Grasses bring a certain magic to a garden on frosty mornings; when low winter sun catches frost on the seed heads, they take on an ethereal beauty. The flowers of many luminesce when seen with the sun shining through from behind; the effect is enhanced with a back drop of dark evergreen foliage.
Although only a few gardeners can aspire to large-scale planting, it is generally more effective to grow several of the same cultivar together rather than a confection. The best grasses to grow in a mass are those that will blend together. Those that form tufts or mounds will be less successful and are better used as specimen plants.
Pests and diseases are rarely a problem and generally speaking the only routine maintenance will be to cut down the old foliage on deciduous plants between late winter and early spring before new growth starts. The exact timing will largely depend on when the plant becomes unsightly. The dead foliage of evergreen grasses such as Stipa tenuissima can be combed out using a springbok rake.
The qualities grasses bring to the garden are incalculable: delicate autumn flowers that can endure through winter; a variety of leaf texture and form; the way they catch and hold the light; seasonal changes and their sociability with other plants.
The Rosemoor Plant Centre has a large selection of grasses and is certainly worth a visit. You can also join in a walk and talk about ornamental grasses at Rosemoor on September 12; phone 01805 265 8072 for details.
For more information on the cultivation of grasses visit rhs.org.uk and follow the advice link.