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Top ornamental grasses for designers

Top ornamental grasses for designers

Stipa gigantea ‘Goldilocks’ offers year-round interest for smaller gardens. Photo: Neil Lucas

Sarah Morgan discovers which grasses are best for different garden situations

Ornamental grasses are substance and linking plants, taking on the roles that are usually done by shrubs and topiary. They have the ability to befriend most plants in all seasons while retaining a star quality of their own. They are as good in bed with autumn-colouring dogwoods, dramatically dying off through winter, as they are at providing a calming influence in linking a chaos of summer flowers. What’s more, their fibrous roots make them extremely adaptable, so you can even grow them in pots to elevate and show off their billowing leaves.

Carex oshimensis ‘Everillo’ grows well in heavier or wetter soils. Photo: Neil Lucas

Best new variety

Neil Lucas of Knoll Gardens & Nursery in Dorset, which specialises in grasses, has some new cultivars he would like more people to grow, such as the evergreen Carex ‘Everillo’. “I always get worried about a new variegated sedge coming out, and quietly hope it’s not another small, squat grass lacking in character,” he explains. “But I planted a group of these out a few years ago and, I have to admit, I don’t think they’ve had an off day since. Like any sedge, it will grow in heavier or wetter soils.”

Grasses for height

If you’re looking for a solid mass to form an internal hedge or boundary, you can’t beat Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. But if you want something with a hint of airiness to drift between perennials, Neil recommends ‘Waldenbuch’ instead. “They’re both upright, but ‘Waldenbuch’ is slightly splayed, so the overall effect is more see-through. Whereas ‘Karl Foerster’ goes brown quite quickly in the autumn, ‘Waldenbuch’ has better autumn colour with green at the bottom and orange in the middle.”

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Waldenbuch’ has great autumn colour. Photo: Neil Lucas

Grasses for small gardens

For an urban garden without much space, you are not likely to choose Stipa gigantea ‘Gold Fontaene’, the largest golden oats, but Neil’s new Stipa gigantea ‘Goldilocks’ is one of the shortest forms available, “so it’s more suited to smaller gardens. It grows up to about 1.5m eventually, yet slowly, and is evergreen so you get the year-round interest with beautiful long-lasting flowers,” he says.

Grasses for flower interest

If it is flower interest you are looking for, top of Neil’s list is Pennisetum macrourum ‘Short Stuff’. “I’m really pleased with this new selection as it’s such a pretty thing, with a lovely mini firework when flowering. It’s under 1m tall and has yet to miss flowering, because it’s a true dwarf, so flowers a little earlier, and subsequently more regularly, than some of the others. As they need full sun and well-drained soil, they are a good choice for a roof terrace or in the mid-to-front of a border amongst perennials.”

Best grass for late summer

John Summerfield, co-owner at Westshores Nurseries believes Miscanthus is the most flattering grass genus to grow with late summer perennials like asters, hardy chrysanthemums or dahlias. His ‘best kept secret’ is the variety M. sinensis ‘Memory’. “I’m loathe to discuss this, my favourite new Miscanthus, for fear of being inundated with orders, as they’re still scarce,” he says. “It was designed in tribute to one of this century’s great plant breeders, Ernst Pagels, and is truly spectacular when it flowers in August – with red flecks on a beige base so it looks speckled.”

Pennisetum macrourum ‘Short Stuff’ flowers earlier than other grasses with a firework effect. Photo: Neil Lucas

Grasses for pots

His choice of best space-saving grass is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’. “This might not be so new, but it is underused and is one of my favourites. It grows to 80cm tall, so is one of the smaller cultivars with the narrower leaves that people enjoy. Come August, it has a profusion of erect stems with red-tinted flowers. It’s great where space is limited or good grown in a pot.”

Where to see ornamental grasses

Bury Court Barn Gardens

Designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole and Piet Oudolf.
Bentley, Farnham, Surrey GU10 5LZ.

Knoll Gardens
Specialist grass nursery and four-acre garden.
Stapehill Road, Hampreston, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 7ND.
Tel: 01202 873931.

Scampston Walled Garden
Award-winning walled garden designed by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf containing 6,500 Molinia plants.
Scampston Hall, Malton, North Yorkshire YO17 8NG.
Tel: 01944 759111.

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