Grasses are an invaluable part of any garden designer’s repertoire. Long before any consideration of colour, the garden designer needs to think about structure, texture and movement in a garden and within a border. Grasses offer all of these and are able to enhance the garden all summer and well into autumn and winter.
They are available in a magnitude of sizes, shapes and colours and this can be rather overwhelming. An easy starting point is to consider is their growing habit. You do not want self seeders or runners in a border – a good, clump forming grass will be much more manageable.
A stunning example is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ with its beautiful, arching green leaves with unusual creamy-yellow horizontal bands. These reach 1-1.5 m in height and 50 cm spread. They are perfect for a specimen plant in a smaller border or for creating a ribbon of grasses through a larger border. They produce silky spikes of pale pink, fan-shaped flower panicles between August and September and are followed by intricate, silvery seed-heads which help to maintain the plant’s ornamental value over the winter.
Speaking of winter, leads me to remember an extremely cold February day at Beth Chatto’s Garden near Colchester. The bitter cold seemed to seep into every part of me and the day was still and grey. It is on days such as these that texture becomes of paramount important in a garden. The Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ perfectly illustrates this – the contrasting textures of this with the Bergenia and the seed heads of the Phlomis russeliana provide interest, variety and subtle colour in deepest winter.
The transparent nature of many grasses is invaluable in the garden and they provide that element of surprise as other perennials and shrubs are glimpsed through them. It is traditional to place taller plants at the back of the border but for a more modern approach, try planting transparent perennials and grasses at the front. Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ is the perfect choice. Silvery, reddish-brown flower spikes appear from early to late summer above dense mounds of slender, arching, mid-green leaves. The feathery flowers of this elegant, ornamental grass mature to a soft golden yellow and shimmer like a golden cloud as it catches the light. Height and spread is around 75 cm. Compact and easy to grown, it is perfect for spot planting through the garden thereby creating that repetition that all good planting designers should aim for.
No discussion of grasses would be complete for me without mention of the fabulous Festuca glauca ‘Intense Blue’. This small, clump forming grass has a height and spread of around 30 cm and produces the most wonderful steely, blue-grey leaves. These bring colour and texture to the garden and are particularly effective in Mediterranean style planting, gravel gardens and in pots. The sun will enhance that stunning colour so aim for a west or south-facing spot. These can also be used to spot plant through a border or even edge a border for a more structured look.