Category: Design My Garden – Tips to improve your plot

PIC00103Moving to a new house with a garden that needs whipping into shape? Need help with an idea for improving part of your established garden? Or maybe you want to completely overhaul your current plot and need a masterplan for achieving your ideas over a number of years?

If you live in the Norfolk area and want to develop your ideas and design skills, in the company of like-minded people, I might be able to help.

I’ve been running a series of short courses to inform, inspire and improve the design skills of gardeners for some years, and I’m planning to kick off the next one in a few weeks time.

I’ve taken the opportunity of a new venue to review the content and programme of the course, also building on the positive feedback I’ve had from previous participants. I’m thrilled to be able to offer a course that’s based at the wonderful Blickling Hall Estate near Aylsham, and hope to take full advantage of it’s fantastic gardens to illustrate and reinforce some key ideas.

WP_20150716_12_09_50_ProAnd as well as visits to the gardens I’ll be using a combination of presentation, group discussion, one-to-one support, handouts, books to borrow and links to further information. You won’t need any special knowledge or skills in garden design or gardening; just the germ of an idea or plan for your garden, or maybe just a general interest in finding out more about garden design.

Venue: The Old School, Blickling Estate, near Aylsham, Norfolk

Times and dates: 10am -12 noon Tuesdays from 2nd February – 22nd March inclusive (excluding 16th February)

Cost: £70 (including refreshments)

For an outline of the Programme take a look here. If you want to find out more about me then take a look at the Page ‘About Me’ on this blog. If you’d like to discuss the course, how it might meet your needs or want to register, please call me on 01603 754250, or leave me a message via the contact form below.

alliums and laburnumI want participants to have the space, time and attention to address their individual needs, so places will be limited; if you’re interested, please get in touch soon!

Old School Gardener (Nigel Boldero)

The Regal Fern

The Regal Fern

Many plants cannot  tolerate damp, dense shade. But do not despair if your garden has a boggy, dark corner; one group of plants – ferns – relish such a site. Ferneries were popular during the Victorian era so you can create a period piece at the same time.

Choose hardy ferns for example Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) and the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), for the boggiest areas, and Aldiantum venustum – which needs neutral to acid soil- on slightly drier land. Dig rotted manure or compost into the soil before planting. Then enjoy the tender green and bronze- red young leaves, unfurling into rich green mature foliage.

Source and further information:

‘Good Ideas for Your Garden’- Reader’s Digest

A Fern Quiz

Old School Gardener

front garden1A front garden is on view to all, so must look good all year and be functional. Here are a few ideas for making your own ‘entrance’:

Focal points-

  • A statue, pot or some other hard landscape feature can be used to provide a focal point; something to draw the eye and give a sense of unity to the front garden.

  • Alternatively, box topiary shapes or other bold ‘architectural’ plants can fulfil this role and can be relatively easy to maintain. Likewise, planting groups of the same plant can be used to create a series of ‘green’ focal points.

  • Another idea is to create a feature such as a rockery that will be seen from the roadside and combines both hard and soft landscaping elements.

Paths and drives-

  • A path to the front door is a central feature of most front gardens. By laying this diagonally across the plot an illusion of depth can be created. If your plot is relatively small and your path from garden entrance to front door has to be primarily fucntional, they should take the shortest route if they are going to be used by casual visitors. However, they can be made to look more attractive by introducing gentle curves or by by using a mixture of path surfacing materials such as brick and stone. But don’t use more than two or three different materials as this can cretae a fussy, disjointed look.

  • If your plot is larger and you can fit in a second path which has a mainly decorative role, this can be routed to meander through the garden and provide easy access to each part of the plot; it could be a continuous ‘snake’ of paving or stepping stones, or a combination of both.

  • Don’t underlay gravel with different coloured or shaped chippings, as over time these will rise to the surface and the result will look ugly.

  • Try to avoid using impermeable materials for vehicle hard standings (there are now regulations in place about this) and if you do have large hard surfaced areas use planting pockets to break these up- a car can easily pass over low growing plants.


  • Drought- tolerant shrubs such as Hebe and Choisya help to squeeze out weeds, so helping to keep the front garden looking tidy.

  • Plant tough plants at the edges of drives such as ornamental grasses, heathers or creeping thymes, which will survive an occasional clipping by a car tyre.

  • Use creeping plants near to the edges of the garden to create a natural look.

Good neighbour-

  • Abide by the law if you are thinking about some more major changes to your front garden e.g. if you are putting up a wall or fence adjoining a public road that is higher than 90cms or hedges in such locations. You need to contact the local authority before putting in solid boundaries and may be asked to cut back hedges that interfere with sight lines.

  • Likewise you need to contact the local authority if you plan to put in a vehicle ‘crossover’ over a public footpath and if you want to cultivate any grass verge outside your house.

front garden2

Source: Short Cuts to Great Gardens- Reader’s Digest

Old School Gardener



gardening_hints_windy_gardens_windswept_treeHave you got an exposed garden? In these sites- especially on hillsides or in coastal areas- wind can cause more damage than frost or cold. Think about the best ways of providing some shelter.

A solid wall or fence can make wind eddy over the top and can cause strong back-drafts on the leeward side. Instead, filter the wind to slow it down with a hedge or artificial wind break, which will give useful shelter for a distance about ten times its height on the leeward side. Another option- if you have the space- is to plant a shelter belt of trees. If you have views out from the garden that you want to preserve, try creating ‘windows’ in a hedge or other barrier.

Here are four typical problems in windy sites and tips on what to do about them…

1. Growth

Problem: Wind slows plant growth by increasing water loss through evaporation. This can significantly reduce the yields of vegetables.

Tip: protect the vegetable plot with wind break netting or a natural barrier like a hedge.

2. Pollination

Problem: Pollinating insects avoid windy areas.

Tip: To get good pollination of fruit crops grow them against sheltered walls.

3. Leaves and flowers

Problem: Plants with big leaves and those that come into flower early in the season are more vulnerable to wind damage.

Tip: Avoid growing such plants or place them in sheltered spots.

4. New plants

Problem: New plants, particularly evergreens, are especially susceptible to wind damage.

Tip: Protect these plants with wind break netting until they are well establishes and keep all new plants well watered.

Windbreak fabric can be an effective method of sheltering your vegetables

Wind break netting can be an effective method of sheltering your vegetables

Further information: Gardening hints for windy and exposed gardens

Source: ‘Short Cuts to Great Gardens’- (Reader’s Digest 1999)

Old School Gardener

Bright_green_tree_-_WaikatoAs trees tend to be the largest and longest lived plants in the garden, they should be one of, if not THE first item to consider when designing or redesigning your garden.They rank alongside some of the hard landscaping elements (seats, arches, pergolas, arbours etc.) in helping to provide the ‘bones’ or structural framework of a garden i.e. the structure by which we navigate ourselves around the plot both visually and in terms of guiding our movement. Shrubs (especially evergreens), provide a similar service and should be thought about in conjunction with whether, where and what sorts of trees to include in a design or redesign.

Trees also offer a range of other potential sources of interest in a garden apart from their overall shape or form; leaf size shape and colour (which may vary from season to season), bark (colour, texture or special effects such as peeling or patterned), flowers and fruit (catkins, conkers, apples and so on).

In visual terms the planting of a tree or trees can have a dramatic effect on the layout (or form) and perspectives around the garden. They can be used as a focal point to draw the eye. This includes those planted as a ‘specimen’. Those planted in the foreground or middle distance help to increase the sense of depth or perspective in a garden, while those planted further away help to give a sense of scale to the overall space. So, in a small garden a large tree in the foreground and a small tree at the end will make the garden seem longer.

Leaf size and texture is another important consideration. If you want a strong shape to provide a key structural element all year round in the garden, then go for small leaved, evergreen varieties with distinctive shapes or which can be pruned (topiarised) into these- e.g. Box.

Horse Chestnut flower about to burst
Horse Chestnut flower about to burst

Why not take a look at your garden and ask if you have one or more trees that aren’t in the right place- are they are too tall, too broad, drying out the soil or causing shade where you don’t want it? Perhaps removal or pruning is the answer. Could you introduce a tree or two and help to strengthen what your garden has to offer- providing food or a home for birds, for example or adding a brilliant show of flowers or autumn leaf colour?

Traditionally we seem to have used trees in gardens as stand alone ‘specimens’, often in an island in the middle of a lawn for example. Today, with the wide range of trees available and with characteristics that suit almost any situation, its possible to be a bit freer with how we use them- in groups or among other planting in borders.

If you are using a tree as a specimen think about its positioning carefully- if it’s planted by itself without any surrounding planting to soften its impact, it will be a focal point from the start, and as it grows bigger this impact will become even more pronounced.

If planting several trees together, including adding one or two to an existing group, think about their ultimate height and spread. As in nature, some trees grow well together; eg. Betula pendula, or ‘Silver Birch’- see my recent article in the A-Z of Trees series. The wild cherry (Prunus avium), is another example. So as with any other tree planting think carefully about their ultimate height and spread and allow room for them to grow. If you want to give a denser appearance in the time it takes the trees to mature, try growing them closer together, but expect to remove some as they mature to allow the remaining ones to grow to full size.

When planting more than one tree together in an area of grass, the relationship of one to another will determine the effect and this can change depending on where you are in the garden. A good idea is to use large posts or bamboo canes to mark their positions. Try out different positions to see what effect you like the best. Look at the positioning from different places, including from inside the house. and remember to think about their ultimate height and width and what they might obscure or hide.

Chracterisitcs of the White Fir
Chracterisitcs of the White Fir

We tend to think short term when it comes to gardens- we want immediate impact or effect.

The danger here is that you’ll end up with something that outgrows its space and gives you problems- a classic example is the Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) that was planted in the front garden of a Victorian terrace house or villa and is now way too large and tottering precariously above and perhaps towards the house! So the speed of growth is also a consideration; very slow growing trees may take  30 years to have a significant impact, so if you want an impact over a shorter period than this, then that’s perhaps a good choice.

If you have a relatively small garden, don’t think that you can’t have any trees. Smaller varieities of many different types are often available, and by choosing trees that have a more conical or upward habit you can achieve an impact without having a major loss of garden space .

Planting trees too near to buildings is another common problem. Some have relatively compact root systems ; e.g. Birch (Betula), Sorbus, Hornbeam and Magnolia are good examples and rarely cause problems. However trees like Willow will seek out water and their roots are liable to invade drains if planted close by.

If an existing tree is of concern seek the advice of a qualified tree surgeon. and if you think a tree may be subject to a Tree Preservation Order, make sure you consult your local authority before doing anything to affect it. And always consider your neighbours- trees planted close to boundaries may look good from your side of the fence, but think about what impact the tree is going to have on your neighbour’s garden and house. The inconsiderate planting of hedges of Leylandii conifers is the most familiar example of the wrong species being chosen to achieve rapid but usually unattractive results. Left to its own device this tree will grow to well over 100′ high and it looks superb, so don’t expect it to enjoy continually being hacked back!

Old School Gardener

Large Gardens can be broken up into smaller spaces, but these can be held together by features such as water channels, paths and planting, as here in a scheme by Audax Design

Large Gardens can be broken up into smaller spaces, but these can be held together by features such as water channels, paths and planting, as here in a scheme by Audax Design


Garden Design is concerned with creating spaces which both meet the functional needs of their users (relaxing, entertaining, playing, growing food, getting washing dry etc.) and which are appealing to the senses, especially vision.

The latter is about achieving concepts like harmony and unity – the design ‘hangs together’- and using layout and structure (the features, plants and other things which are the visual backbone of the garden) to achieve variety and interest.

Some gardens have shapes which pose particular design challenges, but various approaches can be taken to get the most from them. Here’s a list of some of these and ways to lay out the garden for maximum effect. All the examples assume that you are looking at the garden from the back of the house.


Challenge: These plots typically are wide near the house and the sides taper away to converge to a point and this is exaggerated through perspective, making the garden appear smaller than it is.

Solution: Try to disguise the garden boundaries, especially the narrow point at one end. Focal points can also be used to draw the eye away from the corner, or if a focal point is used near the end make sure it is brought well forward. Another approach is to use sweeping curves and not follow the lines of the boundaries.

triangular garden after

After- showing good use of floorscape at an angle and a pergola to break up the view to the end. Picture- Fiona Edmond. Designed by Fiona Edmond of Green Island Gardens


A triangular garden – before Picture-Fiona Edmond



Challenge: The boundaries can dictate the internal layout which can be rather formal and symmetrical – what if you don’t want formal?

Solution: Try to hide the boundaries, especially the horizontal fence line with a mixed planting of trees, shrubs and climbers. You could make use of sweeping curves, especially circles or part circles, or alternatively use a 45 degree/60 degree grid.

L- shaped

Challenge: This is an interesting shape which can potentially allow for the creation of a ‘secret area’. However, like the rectangular plot it can become rather formal if you follow the boundaries in the internal layout.

Solution: Unless you want a formal garden, use either a layout based on a 45 degree grid to the boundaries or sweeping curves to take the eye away from the sides of the plot. Oh, and of course think about varying this in the ‘dog leg’ of the shape to create a diffferent if not ‘secret’ space. Another option is to use the part of the ‘L’ that’s out of the main view from the house to hide things like bin areas, sheds or play spaces (though you might want areas for younger children to remain in sight from the house).

An L shaped garden which has been designed to hide utilities such as washing line and water butt, and at the same time introduced curves and a focal point seating area - designed by Dewin Designs

An L shaped garden which has been designed to hide utilities such as washing line and water butt, and at the same time introduced curves and a focal point seating area – designed by Dewin Designs


Large gardens

Challenge:The scale of the challenge can be overpowering so the designer does very little or nothing; the result is often a plot which lacks interest; large open expanses of grass with thin borders around the edges, for example.

Solution:These give the designer lots of scope for creating a series of smaller spaces within one larger plot. It is quite a common technique to divide the garden into three; first, the area near the house is normally more ‘architectural’ and formal (with hard lanscaping features like terraces, steps, archways); the second is a transitional space; the third is more informal so it blends in with the landscape beyond.

A large garden can be broken up into a series of more interesting spaces using arches, hedges, screens etc.

A large garden can be broken up into a series of more interesting spaces using arches, hedges, borders, screens etc.


Long and narrow

Challenge: These can create a ‘tunnel’ effect, making the space seem claustrophobic.

Solution: One way to rectify this is to divide the garden into two or three smaller spaces, each linked together but with its own theme or function: this then prevents you seeing straight down the garden. Another option is to put in a long serpentine lawn/open gravelled area with certain features on the insides of the bends to block the view, or you could design in a path that zig zags across the garden from left to right and then back again. In this type of plot it is important to screen the boundaries so it is not so obvious how narrow the plot is.

A design for a long and narrow garden which shows paving placed at an angle to the sides, plus a curved path -these help to widen the impression of the space

A design for a long and narrow garden which shows paving placed at an angle to the sides, plus a curved path – these help to widen the view of the space – design by Albert’s Garden


Wide and shallow

Challenge: The view to the end of the garden is foreshortened, so if you see the back boundary you know that the plot is shallow and you see the whole plot at once- pretty uninteresting .

Solution: Avoid using the boundaries as the guide to internal layout as this will emphasise the foreshortening even more. Only use the boundaries if you are creating a formal garden. Try to disguise the far boundary fence/ wall so that you are not aware of how close it is. This can be achieved by introducing a false archway or by using tall planting between the house and the boundary to draw the eye to the middle distance. Use layouts based on the diagonal axis and/or use circles, curves, rectangles, ovals or ellipses to define a strong internal shape that draws the eye. An alternative approach is to use a narrowing shape towards the short end to give a false sense of perspective and so give the impression of greater distance to the rear boundary (e.g. edges of paths/ lawn and a focal point like a statue, structure or feature plant).

A design for a triangular community garden showing how paths and various features draw the eye into the central space.

A design for a triangular community garden showing how paths and various features draw the eye into the central space.

Photo credits: Fiona Edmond, Green Island Gardens (see link below)

Further information:

Albert’s Garden- design examples

Triangle Community Garden

Green Island Gardens- design

Old School Gardener

Well here it is, my plan for the kitchen garden here at the Old School. I’ve reviewed last year’s results and have tried to rotate crops as well as introducing more variety and greater successional cropping. This approach will, I hope,  help me to avoid gluts, reduce the overall level of food and waste, while at the same time increasing the range and the ornamental value of the area through introducing more perennial and annual flowers.

I’m also going for some ‘heritage’ varieties- squash, cauliflower, leek, pea, runner beans and beetroot.

What do you think?

kitchen gdn layout 2014

Old School Gardener

Using focal points- including the more unusual- is an effective way of drawing the eye away from the edges of a space
Using focal points- including the more unusual- is an effective way of drawing the eye away from the edges of a space

Sometimes, especially with awkwardly shaped or smaller gardens, it makes sense to try and draw the eye from the outer boundaries and create a more pleasing and, apparently larger space. Here are seven ‘top tips’ for achieving this:

1. Put square and rectangular patios and lawns at 45/30/60 degrees to the side boundaries or use shapes for these and other flat areas which contrast with the outer shape of the garden.

2. Set paths to run at an angle to the garden boundaries in zig zags or dog leg style.

3. Make paths curved, meandering from side to side.

Paths- including grass- and the border edges they create can be meandering to take the eye on a journey..
Paths- including grass- and the border edges they create can be meandering to take the eye on a journey..

4. Fix structures such as trellis, pergolas and arches or plant hedges across the garden to interrupt the view and to create separate compartments.

5. Place groups of tall shrubs or trees at intervals in the line of sight to block views across or down the garden.

6. Use climbers and large shrubs, especially evergreens, to disguise solid formal boundary fences and to break up the straight lines, particularly the horizontal ones of fence/ wall tops.

7. Carefully place focal points to draw the eye in various chosen directions, positioning them so that they can be seen from different places in the garden.

Use climbing plants to cover up and soften hard boundaries

Use climbing plants to cover up and soften hard boundaries

Related article: Arbours and Pergolas in the Garden- 7 Top Tips

Old School Gardener

A pond is a fantastic resource for wildlife

A pond is a fantastic resource for wildlife

Most gardens play an important part in promoting biodiversity and maintaining ecosystems – vital if we are to have a sustainable planet. You might want to further enhance your garden’s ecological value, or perhaps promote wildlife to help pollinate plants (important if you want to gather your own seed and/or are growing your own food) and to help control unwanted pests.

Promoting wildlife is also a way or enriching the garden experience – just think about birdsong, the buzzing and gentle flitting of bees from flower to flower, the colourful displays of butterflies and the fascinating movements of the myriad insects and other ‘critters’ out there! So how can you ‘design’ wildlife into your garden and gardening activities?

Plant nectar- rich flowers to attract pollinators

Plant nectar- rich flowers to attract pollinators

First it’s important to recognise that you and your friends and family are also going to use the garden, so there’s no need to ‘go completely wild’ and make it unpleasant or difficult for humans to use the garden. In fact the best designed and managed gardens (and often the most beautiful) can also be the best for wildlife. These are the places where nature has not been allowed to take over.

You can ‘tip the balance in favour of wildlife’ in a number of ways. If you have a large garden you can adopt a ‘conservation’ approach and set out separate areas to attract and support different types of wildlife. If your garden is smaller, you can provide a range of features for the wildlife species you want to encourage. This approach is especially important if you want to actively harness nature to control pests.

Bird feeders need to be out of the reach of cats!

Bird feeders need to be out of the reach of cats!

So what can you do?

  • Create habitats that mimic those in nature and complement the local range outside the garden

  • Provide natural shelter, nesting, food and drink –  important as ‘stopping off’ points for temporary visitors to your garden as well as for longer term residents

  • Aim to increase diversity- and recognise that this is going to be a gradual process

  • Build in some key features, such as…..

Climbign planst like Ivy provide a valuable food source for wildlife

Climbing plants like Ivy provide a valuable food source for wildlife

  1. Native plants- these act as a host to many more species than non native plants

  2. Wildflowers, grasses, weeds- these attract butterflies and many other insects. Nettles are important hosts for species that aid a healthy garden; butterflies and ladybirds. Maybe you can grow these in a container if you don’t have the space to leave patch in the garden?

  3. Nectar and pollen rich flowering plants- these  feed butterflies, bees, hoverflies etc.- which in turn attract birds

  4. Trees, flowering and fruiting shrubs- these provide food and shelter for birds

  5. Climbing plants- they provide food and cover for birds and food for insects and butterflies. Examples include Ivy, honeysuckle, quince, wisteria, clematis..

  6. Hedges- these give food and shelter for wildlife (e.g hedgehogs, voles and shrews), food and nesting for birds- where it’s practical choose to install a hedge rather than a fence

  7. Water- a pond brings masses of creatures to drink as well as attracting resident pond life

  8. Wood piles – insects colonise the decaying wood, attracting spiders and birds; beetles lay grubs; toads and hedgehogs hibernate underneath; slow worms use it as home (and these prey on slugs)

  9. Compost heap – provides both food for the soil and home for minute insects and other ‘mini beasts’ which feed birds, hedgehogs, toads. It also acts as a possible nesting place for hedgehogs, toads and slow worms.

  10. Bird and Bat boxes, tables, feeders and baths- put these up in secluded and sheltered spots out of full sun – and out of the reach of cats! Birds need extra food in winter. provide a range of foods according to the species you want to attract. Birds need to drink and bathe to keep their plumage in good order- even in winter, so keep birdbaths unfrozen

  11. Stones and walls- toads, newts and female frogs usually spend winter on land, under rockery stones (or in a log pile). Beetles, spiders, insects live in nooks and crannies

  12. Bug hotels’ can provide a ‘man made’ substitute for the above, and are good fun to make with children.

'Bug Hotels' can provide a 'Des Res' for many insects and other critters

‘Bug Hotels’ can provide a ‘Des Res’ for many insects and other critters

Further information: A range of useful wildlife gardening guides

Old School Gardener

Dried flowers and stems of Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' providing interest at RHS Garden Hyde Hall in March

Dried flowers and stems of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ providing March  interest at RHS Garden Hyde Hall

My previous post set out the background to the growth in popularity of grasses as border plants. I’ve come to appreciate their simple beauty and the way they can add a different dimension to the traditional herbaceous and mixed border and at the moment some of them are looking great in Old school Garden, especially as the low autumn sun catches their golden stems and heads.

So what are the ways you can use grasses to best effect in your garden?

They contribute in a number of ways – texture, light, colour and as structural elements in your overall garden framework (and some sound lovely as the breeze finds its way through them or their seed heads are rattled like mini maracas). Here are some thoughts gleaned (no pun intended) from the very useful book, ‘Grasses’ by Roger Grounds.


Most grass stems and leaves provide strong vertical or curved lines and are best used in contrast:

  • With other perennial broad – leaved plants (often most effective if seen from a distance),

  • With strong vertical lines like clipped Yew or the corners of buildings (where the grass has a curved or arching stem),

  • More subtle, unusual combinations (e.g. with Ferns),

  • Contrasting the ‘fuzzy’ flower heads of many grasses with those plants that have a more linear or defined form e.g. Digitalis, Lythrum, Achillea, Phlomis russelliana, Echinops and Allium giganteum

  • With other grasses that have different leaf form; e.g. the narrow leaves of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ with the broad bold leaves of Arundo donax, or the wide, short leaves of Panicum alopecuroides.

  • At the front of borders to act as ‘veils’ through which other plants or a more distant landscape can be revealed.

Annual  grasses- complete their growth cycle in one growing season. Hardy varieties can withstand frost and most can be sown in autumn to over winter in the ground and germinate in spring. Tender grasses need to be sown once all risk of frost has passed. Many of these are perennial in frost-free climates.


  • Position grasses to catch the sun, preferably against a dark backdrop to ‘light up’ the wider garden.

  • Use grasses to take advantage of the different tonal values of light as it changes from season to season and at different times of the day – especially the more mellow light of autumn and also early and late in the day as these are the times when the richest colours are revealed. I’ve positioned some Stipa gigantea (‘Golden Oat Grass’) to catch the low sun of late summer and autumn, and close to the house where we can see the full

  • Associate grasses with seasonal changes in perennials and foliage; e.g. in spring the foliage of grasses is more prominent so think about using bold coloured grass leaves as foils for spring flower colour- the yellow of Bowle’s Golden Grass with the blues of Bluebells for instance.

Cool season grasses- these start into growth in autumn, grow through the winter and flower in spring or early summer. Best planted among winter or spring- flowering perennials. Plants grown for their foliage, or among spring and early summer bulbs. Most then become dormant/semi dormant and so can be planted where summer flowers or other grasses can grow up to conceal their faded foliage. They can be divided or transplanted in spring or autumn.


  • Use the ‘washed out’ or subtle colours of grasses as a counterpoint to the richer colours in surrounding plants.

  • Grasses with coloured leaves can be used to reinforce a particular colour theme- reds with reds, blues with blues etc. As they last longer than many of the flowers around them, grasses help to maintain continuity in colour themed borders. Blues from grasses such as the varieties of Panicum virgatum, reds from Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’ (Japanese Blood Grass) and the yellow of Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). Yellow is the dominant colour of many grasses’ flower panicles, especially as they fade and the seed heads ripen to shades of amber, straw and gold.

Massing, grouping and markers

  • Grasses look best when grown in groups of three or more- though few gardens have the scope for mass planting. They can also be effective as specimens. Grasses planted as masses or groups should be spaced closer together than in smaller groups.

  • Many low growing grasses make excellent ground cover, and this can be an effective way of massing them in smaller gardens.

  • Taller grasses, or those with strong colouring can act as successful specimens or ‘markers’ in a garden, either planted by themselves or as accents in a border. Clumps of grasses can have a similar impact if planted to contrast with other surrounding grasses or plants.

  • More subtle ways of creating a focus include using grasses with distinctive flower or foliage forms; e.g. Calamagrostis brachytrica with its elongated ovoid flower panicles.

  • A repetition of specimen grasses in a strict rhythm along a border – especially if placed towards the middle of front of it – will impel the eye along its full length. A similar effect, but with less impact, can be achieved with taller grasses placed at the back of the border; e.g. Stipa gigantea.

Warm season grasses- these do not start into growth until late spring or early summer, so they are best planted among other perennials or shrubs that flower from midsummer to autumn. They can be left standing through winter to provide interest- especially when they are covered with raindrops, dew or frost. They should be transplanted or divided in early spring, once they have started into growth.

Seasons and sitings

  • Think about the ‘plant partners’ to go with your grasses, and use the key features of both to complement each other at different times of the year. For example combine a range of strong flower forms which use the structure of grasses to greatest effect; Umbellifers like Anthriscus; Spires like Veronicastrum virginicum; Ball-like or pincushion flowers like Echinops  and Knautia macedonica; loosely structured heads like Astilbe; daisy-like flowers such as Rudbeckia. If possible go for those with the longest flowering period.

  • Use grasses in special sites; e.g. as part of a meadow; as a larger scale ‘prairie’ planting or border; in woodland or shade; at the water’s edge.

Sedges, Rushes and Cat tails – though they generally look like grasses, these plants have taken a different evolutionary path and so vary in leaf and flower details, and also their growing needs. Sedges are large family of diverse plants, mostly from the cool temperate regions, enjoying cooler and damper conditions than most of the true grasses. Rushes are a smaller family with few garden-worthy plants though the woodrushes are often decorative as well as useful, for example as ground cover. Cat tails (or reedmaces or bullrushes)are a single genus family with aquatic or marginal plants that have conspicuous flower heads.

Source: ‘Grasses’ by Roger Grounds (RHS and Quadrille Publishing)

Linked article: Design my Garden: Grasses- first the background…

Further information: Garden design with grasses

Old School Gardener

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