Neil Lucas how choosing the right plants can add colour, texture, sound and elegance to a garden
PUBLISHED: 10:25 22 April 2014 | UPDATED: 10:25 22 April 2014
Grasses are fabulous. They can provide interest virtually all year round and better still they can bring a ‘wow factor’ to virtually any garden setting. In the natural world grasses cover more land area than any other single group of plants and have adapted to just about every kind of situation found in nature.
You’ll find them on flood prone estuaries and marshland; on sandy beaches where the very ground is constantly on the move; in the deep shade of woodland and also in the sun-baked desert. Grasses simply adapt to cope and thrive. It is this amazing adaptability, quite apart from their innate beauty and movement as a breeze passes through, that should encourage us to make more of grasses in our gardens.
The secret of happy plants
Gardens, like nature, can present some very demanding conditions for plants. The trick to growing grasses successfully is to choose the right grass for the right place. Not only do happy plants including grasses, look great, they are also easy to look after.
As the national specialist in this area the three questions we hear from our customers on a daily basis are:
• What to plant in shade - especially dry shade under trees
• What to plant in very sunny, often very dry areas
• How to grow grasses in containers.
That last question is probably the most popular one as it can range from a pot by the front door to the rather drafty conditions of a roof terrace. The answer to all these questions is to do a little research, and choose your plants to suit the place you want them to thrive in. By doing this you are less likely to make an expensive mistake and your garden will be easier to maintain and it will look stunning!
Most plants grow pretty well in containers and grasses are no exception. The golden rule is to provide as much root room as possible. A container that is too small will not allow the plant room to develop sufficiently. Big is beautiful; always choose the largest volume container you can and fill it with properly balanced compost, ideally with the addition of a long-term fertiliser so no additional feeding is necessary.
Many grasses love dry conditions but pots are an artificial environment and the compost in any container can dry out completely in hot sunny spells. So during the growing season it is essential to water on a regular basis for best results and not put the plant under stress.
In large containers, and in planters on sunny roof terraces, dry loving grasses like Pennisetum can look particularly beautiful - creating a base of green foliage from which come masses of flowers. In taller pots I like to use grasses such as Carex testacea. Its foliage will gradually droop over the container and down over the sides creating a very different effect than when planted directly in the ground. Another personal favourite for a similar effect is a form of the African Love grass, Eragrostis ‘Totnes Burgundy’. It makes such a fabulous shape in containers that I have actually stopped planting it in the ground!
It can be easy for tall grasses to look out of proportion in tall containers so, if you are looking for added height, chose pots that are wider than they are high and plant them with strong upright grasses. Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ and the newish Panicum ‘Northwind’ will look quite sumptuous and make a wonderful statement.
Grasses have such strong lines that I mixing too many types together in all but the widest of containers ends up looking too grassy! My advice is stick to a single specimen per container; this will give you clarity of line that is much more easily appreciated.
A shady issue
Shade, especially dry shade, is arguably the most difficult of conditions to plant successfully. There is often adequate moisture in the soil during the winter but it all dries out during the summer months. Amazingly there are grasses that will thrive and be happy, even here.
In my garden Luzula nivea, a native sedge, thrives in the dry shade created by large long-established shrubs, producing its delicate looking white flowers in May. It has evergreen foliage and is happy in damp as well as dry conditions. The wonderfully named Anemanthele lessoniana (also known as pheasant tail grass), will not be happy in damp soils but is fantastic in dry shady soils.
Few plants are indestructible but one that comes close is Carex ‘Ice Dance’. It uses its toughness to create weed supressing mats of lightly variegated leaves that need virtually no maintenance. I also have a wonderful planting of mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus in my garden that has yet to require any treatment in over 10 years. Its cousin, the black leaved Ophiopogon Nigrescens is popular in containers and is also very easy to care for. Native evergreen sedges like Carex divulsa are also happy in wet or dry. It is a plant I love, especially when it flowers in my Damp Garden at Knoll.
Some of those grasses that do well in dry shade will also cope with the same kind of dry soils in sun. Carex and Ophiopogon are good examples of these along with the pheasant grass which will then produce masses of tiny pink flowers in addition to its evergreen foliage. However, full sun and drought prone conditions are really the province of sun lovers such as Pennisetums, Festucas, Miscanthus, Helictotrichon, Poa and Panicum to mention a few.
One easy to remember rule of thumb is that any grass with blue foliage is adapted to sunny conditions, so for instance the wonderful blue foliage of Festuca ‘Intense Blue’ is at its very best when in full sun and dry, either in a border or in a pot.
As a group Miscanthus are very adaptable but on the whole prefer sunny open conditions. The more compact forms such as the new Miscanthus ‘Starlight’ are really great in both borders and containers and produce masses of flower. I also love the Panicums for their airy feel and masses of tiny flowers that are so freely produced they look like floral clouds, but possibly my very favourite grasses are the Pennisetums of which we have a National Collection at Knoll.
Favourite fountain grasses
Demanding full sun and well-drained soil to do well, Pennisetum are commonly known as fountain grasses, a term which aptly describes their flowering habit. I have several favourites. Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ is generally upright and won’t stop flowering once it starts. Pennisetum ‘Shogun’ is wonderful for its blue-green foliage and soft pink, fluffy flowers, while Pennisetum ‘Red Head’ covers itself with quite amazing large dark red to almost black, bottlebrush flowers. As a starting point I’d probably recommend Pennisetum ‘Hameln’ as the ideal fountain grass as it produces masses of delicate looking flowers that spring from a distinctly rounded habit – however no fountain grass will disappoint if given the right conditions.
About Neil Lucas
Neil Lucas is an RHS Council Member and Senior Judge, and holder of ten consecutive Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals. His first book, Designing with Grasses was published to great acclaim and remains on the best-seller list. Neil’s internationally renowned naturalistic gardening style can be enjoyed to the full at Knoll Gardens, his Wimborne-based four-acre showcase and nursery.
Where: Knoll Gardens, Hampreston, near Wimborne BH21 7ND
Opening Times: The gardens and nursery open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm
More details: knollgardens.co.uk or call 01202 873931
Diary Event in May - Specialist Plant Fair
Knoll Gardens is hosting a special plant fair on 24 May. Featuring specialist plant nurseries from across east Dorset this will be a unique opportunity to buy direct from plantsmen and women with years of accumulated horticultural knowledge. Alongside Neil’s award-winning grasses will be camellias, fuchsias, heathers, acers, Japanese maples, blueberries and azaleas – all top quality plants from top quality growers. The plant fair runs from 10am - 5pm and garden tours and refreshments will be available alongside expert advice.
Exclusive Dorset Magazine Reader Offer
Knoll Gardens has put together a special Reader Offer for Dorset magazine to help you enjoy the beauty of grasses in your own garden. Until 30 April 2014 you can claim an exclusive 25% discount on any plants from Neil’s nursery. Order online at knollgardens.co.uk and type Dorsetmag in the promotions box when prompted. Alternatively you can order by phone on 01202 873931, or in person at the nursery.