Nothing says Autumn like the spires of ornamental grass in the garden. At this time of the year, when our September gardens are having a final flush of delicious perennial colour, grasses slowly start coming into their own. Plumes of fluffy flower heads are emerging and gracing perennial borders with frothy texture and elegant movement, seeming to float above the reds, yellows and burnt oranges of late blooming flowers.
I have never designed a garden without some form of ornamental grass. Whether adding some grasses for texture and softness or structure and movement, airy flower heads or striking vertical lines; grasses with their endless adaptability are like the backbone of a well designed garden.
The ethereal quality of ornamental grasses truly lends itself to every garden tyle. For cottage or romantic gardens grasses lend softness to a scheme and become a binder between the abundance of colours and blooms and leaf shapes. In contemporary and modern spaces grasses often form the architecture of a garden scheme, making a bold statement in their own right. In natural perennial style gardens grasses become an anchor for other plants, emulating how plants grow harmoniously in nature, woven into the tapestry of a planting scheme.
However they are used, grasses are wonderful choice for every garden whether small, large, public or private, grasses are visually striking and mostly low maintenance. Often undemanding of soils and mostly drought tolerant, the only common factor for most grasses is the fact that most need full sun.
Many ornamental grass varieties emerge in Spring and tend to take a while to start looking strong and established, meaning it’s vital to leave a bit of room for them to unfold and not be crowded. It is in late Summer and Autumn that grasses really start to show their strengths however, with many varieties transforming late borders a riot of texture, silky tassels and decadent coloured stripes.
The best thing about grasses is that they extend the growing season and support the garden in its transition from Summer to Autumn and even into Winter. In Summer, rich green gives supporting softness to the glorious colours of perennials and bulbs, in Autumn the grasses interplay wonderfully with the russet tones of late season planting and even in Winter, grasses hold their own and give the frosty garden softness and texture.
So with their seemingly endless varieties how do we go about choosing some grasses for our own spaces? Here are some tips for your own garden.
For the smaller border
Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Heidebraut’
The purple moor grass is a perennial grass with a very subtle character. Loose and flirty in nature, the grass sways in the breeze and adds wonderful light texture to the border. It grows to about 1.2meters in height but due to its loose nature it sits happily even amongst smaller perennials at the front of the border. The violet flower spikes are born from May to September and it has lovely Autumn colour too.
Grow it: in full sun or partial shade in moist but well-drained acid-neutral soil
For frothy drama
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Fontäne’ (main image with leonie)
This grass shown here in the gardens of Lissadell House in Sligo is not that small but as far as large grasses go for small to medium spaces this is a stunner. It only spreads to about 50 cm so is fairly neat in the border but rises majestically to about 1.5 metres. It is a gorgeous fountainous grass which gives great height to the back of a mixed herbaceous border. The showy flower heads glisten in sunshine and last well into Autumn.
Grow it: in full sun and fertile, well drained or sandy soil.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’
The Chinese silver grass is a statuesque grass that makes a real statement at the back of a mixed or perennial border. Growing up to 2 metres in height this one is definitely for the medium to large garden where its arching leaves with a white stripe can really spread out. The silky feathers of its flowers which emerge in late Summer and Autumn are red-brown and glisten magically in the sun.
Grow it: in full sun and fertile, moist, well drained or sandy soil.
For zingy colour
This evergreen New Zealand wind grass is a wonderful option for the small garden. Relatively neat in size, it grows 1 metre in heigh and the same in spread, and is often chosen or year round colour and the gorgeous movement and texture it provides. The grass, which is also known as Pheasant’s tail, has fountains of slender leaves which start off green but start to develop yellow, organge and red streaks, giving it a stunning mottled colour-especially for the Autumn border. The bonus are the airy red flower heads which emerge in sprays in late Summer.
Grow it: In full sun to partial shade with relatively fertile, medium to light, well-drained soil
For wet shade
This wonderful grass which hails from the wet cliffs of Honshu island in Japan is a grass with so many uses. Its a gorgeous rich green leaves slowly spread to become mounds of arching hummocks of bright green. The flowers which appear in June and July are fluffy lime green and give added softness to the grass. It is a great choice for courtyards and planters and works beautifully planted along pathways and edges of borders for texture.
For a lighter lime green colour the ‘Aureola’ variety packs some punch and the ‘Nicolas’ variety has the best autumn colour, turning stunning tones of flame red and yellow.
Grow it: in a cool moist spot with sun or partial shade.
For Mediterranean structure
Festuca ‘Amethystina’ & ‘Glauca’
These undemanding grasses have so many uses. The ‘Glauca’ variety is a wonderful, low maintenance grass which looks super planted in drifts in a gravel garden. Its blue foliage is striking with mediterranean planting schemes and the small flower heads which age to a straw colour are pretty too. The ‘Amethystina’ variety is one which I love planting in loose drifts in perennial borders for their gorgeous shimmering purple flower heads.
Grow them: in full sun and well drained soil
Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday 22.9.19