Grasses for Autumn

12 October 2017

Grasses these days do not just ‘blow in the breeze’, they exist not just as the gaudy pampas grasses of seventies swingers, nor as dishevelled lone specimens in the middle of car park dead zones.  ‘Ornamental’ grasses as they are usually known (although arguably this is a misnomer) are now as fully integrated in to the contemporary planting palette as the once much maligned and mildewy Aster.

Perhaps the single British plantsman most responsible for the meteoric rise of Miscanthus, the astounding ascendancy of Anemanthele (and many more alliterative puns besides) is Neil Lucas, of Knoll Gardens.  From his relatively small nursery and garden in Dorset, Lucas has expounded the virtue of ornamental grasses, in all their myriad glory, for many years.  From the charmingly floral Luzula nivea, to billowing Deschampsia cespitosa and a range of Miscanthus to make even the arch grass hater squeal with delight.   The team at Knoll are constantly, but quietly, asserting the value of grasses to any planting scheme, as well as developing new varieties to suit our ever restless imaginations.

It is when the leaves start turning, and the air becomes cooler and a little richer that grasses really come in to their own.  The Panicum genus can provide particularly spectacular autumn colour, the upright form of many varieties creating shoots of fiery warmth to punctuate a flagging border, ‘North Wind’ and ‘Shenandoah’ are two studio favourites.  Most Miscanthus varieties will also pull their weight as the nights draw in, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ and Miscanthus s. ‘Ferner Osten’ are two that will add bursts of high orange colour, the latter brighter than the former. Silvery flower heads on both will look good well in to winter. Here is yet another virtue of this plant group, allow them to stand tall through winter and if the sharp frosts come, you will be rewarded with breathtakingly beautiful spindles of frost dusted blades and seedheads.  They will undoubtedly always be the last perennials standing. 

As a studio we use grasses in two main ways, incorporated in to perennial schemes to add height and ethereal volume that lasts through the seasons, and as blocks of architectural statement in a landscape on a larger scale. Swathes of Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, regiments of Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, threads of ‘Stipa gigantea’ all look doubly remarkable when grown in this more mono-maniacal of fashions.  Quite apart from anything else it’s a very low maintenance way to create beautiful, multi-seasonal impact.  Grasses form a key part of our design arsenal.  With the help of people like Neil, as well as those across the continent, this vast group has been firmly placed in the palette of garden designers and gardeners, and to the great joy of (almost) all of us, it seems set to stay this way.

- Elizabeth Tyler