Embracing the grassy wilderness in our landscapes and gardens
The landscape of Ireland is fascinating one to study with its many different geographical habitats. From our native coastlines to our open waters such as rivers and lakes and all the way to our country’s two major habitats- and bogland and grasslands, there is a mind-blowing diversity of flora and fauna, all of which come together to make up our unique and beautiful landscape.
For this ‘Native hedgerows’ series I wanted to zoom in on one smaller but nevertheless quintessentially Irish section of our local landscape. Our native hedgerows, which align most roads we drive on, snake through fields and dissect land for agricultural use and are fascinating to study in all their diversity in planting and multitude in wildlife. From the taller layers of trees and shrubs, through scramblers and climbers and all the way down to the grasses and perennials, when we look closely, these hedgerows are a hive of activity and biodiversity.
Driving along our native roads we are surrounded by a rich tapestry of planting, all of which plays a vital role in our native landscape make-up. Visually, we take in this landscape as a whole, admiring the overall beauty of the scheme in front of us. It is only when we start to look closer that we start to see the individual elements of our native landscape. We start to notice the way a wild rose winds its way around a tree or the bog cotton feathers in the breeze.
One of my personal favourite details in the Irish landscape are the many native grasses which line our roads and cover our grassland habitats.
Within this scheme there are many different grass varieties which make up the overall tapestry of grassland. There are wiry stems with dense clusters of flower heads which never fully open such as our Heath-grass – Danthonia decumbens. Then there are the velvety soft slender stems of Yorkshire-fog – Holcus lanatus, which hold frothy heads of loose, almost dusty flowerhead which I always loved to touch as a child. There are also the exquisitely delicate heads of the Tufted Hair-grass – Deschampsia cespitosa, which seem to almost magically float above the landscape and look delightful when the sun shines through their loosely nodding panicles.
There are no better plants than grasses to tie a landscape together.
Their habit to spread and surround other plants, using every available space, allows our landscapes to knit together visually and create a beautiful overall scheme which is ever changing and evolving. In garden design, grasses, many of which are actually native or varieties of native species, also take on this role of unifier. Within most of my own design schemes grasses play a subtle but nevertheless vital role within the design. They may not be the most visually arresting part of the design, such as large flowered perennials or plants with striking leaves, but take away the grasses and a vital component is missing. To me grasses are the glue that holds the scheme together. The bass-line in a piece of music. Without grasses, many schemes lack coherence, depth and ‘real-ness’, taking the garden too far away from the wilderness by which it was inspired from in the first place.
Having said this, not all gardens need a wild mix of grasses and perennials, which many designers, including me are so fond of. Many people like visual structure and a low maintenance approach to their spaces which is absolutely understandable in a time when many of us are too busy to maintain a large scale naturalistic style garden.
For this type of scheme there are still ways to introduce a feel of wilderness, without the high maintenance. Here we can look at including more structural grasses such as strongly tufted fescues, which are easier to control yet when cleverly planted amongst other plants, still have the to tie a scheme together in a wild and beautiful way.
Our native landscape is knitted together by our native grasses but when we look at the individual grasses, not many of us can identify the multitude of varieties growing on our roadsides. When it comes to identifying our native grasses the first thing to look at is the plants inflorescence-its flowering head. In our native grasses, the grasses have either a spike or a panicle. If the grass falls in the spike category then there are various types of spike flowerhead such as cylindrical shapes, diffuse shapes which are looser, and also two sided spikes. If the grass inflorescence is a panicle, the nature of the spikelets will be a guide to what grass you are dealing with.
Here are some of my personal favourite native grasses which I’m sure you’ll recognise as common companions on our native roadsides:
Both Phleum and Alopecerus grasses are recognisable by their cylindrical spike inflorescence. The Timothy (Phleum pratense) has stiff cylindrical spires of flower heads while the Marsh Foxtail (Alopecurus geniculatus) and Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), have softer, downy looking cylindrical flower heads which are somewhat shorter than the neater sized Phleum. Both have strong cylinder shaped flower heads and create striking cylinder accents in a scheme.
The Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) is one of my all time favourites. It has found its way into many of my domestic garden designs and has gorgeous loosely nodding panicles of flower heads. It is useful in covering ground with its large tussocks and will thrive both in sun and light shade. This grass is also easy to maintain, making it a useful grass for the lower maintenance scheme. This grass will mature to about 1.5 metres in height and 1.2metres in width so if you decide to plant it in the garden, give it plenty of space.
The common Quaking-grass (Briza media) is instantly recognisable in its gracefully arching branches and small, locket shaped, green-purple flowers which look gorgeous when they move the breeze. Its inflorescence is a panicle and it grows to about 90cm in height and has a spread of about 30cm, making it a great grass for the small-medium garden. It also has the added benefit to being a great grass for flower arranging!
The Purple Moor-grass (Molinia caerulea) is another wild native grass that has found its way into our garden designs. The dense and compact tussocks of this deciduous grass thrive in moist but well-drained peaty soil. The long, yellow branched panicles which grow to about 1.2metres in height, are born high above the tussocks and hold gorgeous violet flower spikes which move gently in the breeze. This grass is absolutely gorgeous in Autumn.
TOP TIP: The guide by the National Biodiversity Data centre of Ireland entitled ‘Identification guide to Ireland’s Grasses’ is a great starting point for identifying what type of grass you are looking at and outlines many fascinating varieties. Order your copy on www.biodiversityireland.ie
Don’t miss: The RHSI Russborough garden show.
If you’re interested in all things garden then the Russborough garden Show 2018 is not one to be missed. With well known writers and gardeners such as Fionnuala Fallon, Britta Baranowsky, Karen Robinson, Maria Watchorn, and Nicky Kyle amongst others speaking in the hippodrome, as well plant sales and open art studios, this RHSI show offers a wealth of inspiration and knowledge in the gorgeous setting of Russborough house in West Wicklow. Entry costs €10 for adults and kids go free. The RHSI Russborough garden show runs on Sunday, 29th July from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m.