Gardening: Grass Master Class. Riviera edition.

We’re talking grass here, not the kind you have to cut every week but grasses as a family of plants used ornamentally in planting.

Perennial delights

If you’re hoping for the lowdown on the art of grass care with an in-depth discussion on tall fescue and thatch density – then please brace for disappointment – that’ll be another day. Despite the title to this piece, I’m not going to wax lyrical on the beauty of a well-fed, freshly mown lawn, despite how passionately I also feel about that.

Instead, we’re talking grass here, not the kind you have to cut every week but grasses as a family of plants used ornamentally in planting – something which has received somewhat of a strong surge in interest of late. With so many amateur garden enthusiasts looking to cast aside the shackles of annual bedding and “blousy” perennials as their tastes become more sophisticated, the demand for plants which are naturally disease resistant, long in interest, low in maintenance and not perpetually thirsty (yes … you Hydrangeas have good reason to look sheepish) has soared. Enter then, stage left, the ornamental grasses. Stylishly understated, this sprawling family encompasses a multitude of species united by their characteristic growth habits, their ease of cultivation and their deceptively simple beauty. Although they vary in size and shape, they are usually clump forming and will fill out rapidly each spring, to finally produce a mop of flowers in early summer depending on the species.

The flowers will stay on the plants until the end of the year, when in most cases the plants brown off. They do though stay upright and can be retained in this condition right into winter to provide architectural interest to beds and borders, before cropping and allowing them to regrow each spring. Many of them, in particular the medium-sized plants, look best when planted en masse. There is something deeply soothing in seeing a swathe of their flower heads moving in unison at the whim of a light breeze. Looking out of my office window I get to gaze down onto a whole border filled with Feathertop grass (Pennisetum villosum) and they’re stunning. Early in the morning and late in the evening, when the sun is low, there’s something magical about the way the light shines through their flowers. I’ll admit that when we planted them all around the office I wasn’t convinced the scrappy little fellows would be able to hold their own in the design. To my delight, however, they have proven me wrong to have doubted them, having done just that and so much more so that now, five months later, they are out in full flower and simply glorious.

Pennisetum alopecuroidesAll you need

When I tell people something is easy to grow – this is usually relative to other similar plants. With grasses however this declaration can be taken at face value: they truly are easy to grow, with no ifs, buts or any other nefarious horticultural reservations.

Almost everyone has spent time weeding wild sown grass out of an ornamental bed at some point or other – so imagine the pleasure of having the very same plant family deployed ornamentally to great effect – gardening heaven! Perhaps the only real prerequisites are a little patience and owning a pair of shears. I say a little patience because unlike shrubby herbaceous planting, the grasses do have a tendency to look slightly ropey the season that they are planted.

Indeed, as I mentioned above, even my faith was a little in doubt when they were first planted – and I’m one of the disciples! Their true glory only really comes to the fore after a season in the ground, when they have had time to drop some roots and settle down. Before this they can look a little tatty, and for this you’ll have to forgive them. No matter what state they end up in each year, you can crop them whenever you want, and they’ll bounce back in the spring. Hence the need to own a pair of shears. Or a small goat.

Something for everyone

Simply put, the choice can be overwhelming as there are so many families of grasses to choose from and within them, so many more subspecies. It helps to break it down a little and group grasses that you like into three sets. Practically, all the grasses can be fairly easily categorised into three broad classes – small, medium and large. This is probably the most important thing to find out about with grasses before you plant them, as everything else you can see for yourself as they grow.

Only by knowing in advance how high they will get, can you plan the planting, and unlike many other plants, a small pot of an ornamental grass gives precious little hint to the uninitiated to its eventual size and vigour. Ill-judged plant positioning or a lack of organisation can lead to a highly disorganised appearance as a little pot of a large grass will wildly outstrip its smaller cousins in less than a year. The large ones, such as Miscanthus (which masquerades under various guises such as Chinese silver grass, Maiden grass, Zebra grass, Porcupine grass) will grow comfortably over a metre tall, usually settling down at around two metres. The small ones are the species such as the Festuca, which will stay low and dense, making small clumps that never stray past 30cm in height.

Pick of the crop

To narrow down the choices and give you a headstart with the grasses that no doubt you are already burning with enthusiasm to get planting, I’ll let you into the secret of a few of my favourite players.

Behind the others, tall (up and occasionally over two metres) and slightly unruly like naughty children at the back of the class, I like to use the Miscanthus and the Panicum species. Miscanthus sinensis is a staple of any planting scheme involving grasses, and provides good no-nonsense, no-frills fill. Incredibly easy to grow it has large open plumes and for more interest it also comes in a well-liked, strongly upright variegated version called “Zebra” grass due to its horizontally striped colours. Personally I am not so keen on the variegation but it is so amazingly popular it gets a mention here. The Panicum species, such as Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass) are characterised by their more open airy plumes, which contrast the more fluffy versions on many of the other species.

Down in the front, my current favourite in the “small” group is Festuca glauca (Blue fescue). A charming silver blue colour and compact habit make it a great controllable ground cover with its little dwarf mounds that re-seed themselves nicely. Stipa tenuissima (Feathergrass) is also a graceful and soft addition to the foreground of a bed, with its beautiful plumes that contrast nicely with more rigid forms such as clipped Box.

And last but not least, in the “medium” category, is my all time champion, Pennisetum alopecuroides – the classic Fountain grass. This magnificent plant has a wonderful arching habit, will settle in at between one and one and a half metres tall (it has smaller cousins if required) and has stunning feathery plumes that dance in the breeze. Accusations have been made that I have a fetish for this plant. Guilty as charged Your Honour

By James Hartley Director, English Garden Group
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