Tag Archive: grasses

Sedum 'Chocolate Drop'- the foliage as attractive as the flower- and what a combination!

Sedum ‘Chocolate Drop’- the foliage as attractive as the flower- and what a combination!

We tend to think a lot – some of us almost entirely – about flower colour when we consider planting in the garden. Leaves last far longer than blooms, so why not go for a combination of flower and foliage that will add texture to flower colour and shape?

Some leaves are striped, others marbled or speckled, while others range from purple, silver and blue, to butter-yellow or lime-green. Geranium (Cranesbill) and succulent-leaved Sedum are good examples of plants that pack a punch with their leaves, as do Hostas and Lamium.

Stipa gigantea- wonderful

Stipa gigantea- wonderful

You can creat a soft, billowing effect with plants that have feathery foliage, such as Bronze Fennel, or those with masses of leaflets, such as Aquilegia and many of the ferns. Ornamental grasses can also be used to soften displays; many are particularly useful because they are drought tolerant. I grow several here at Old School Garden, and I love the variety they add to a herbaceous border with an evergreen structure of shrubs; Stipa gigantea is especially lovely when the late afternoon sunlight catches its stalks and waving awns.

From flower to seedpod- Agapanthus

From flower to seedpod- Agapanthus

To sum up….

  • Blend foliage plants with flowering ones to keep the border looking at its best over the longest possible time.

  • Combine foliage and flowers that contrast with each other in colour,shape and texture.

  • Use plants with ornamental seed pods, such as Agapanthus, Feathery grass heads, such as Pampas grass and evergreen foliage.

  • Use plants with variegated leaves, such as striped, blotched and marbled, to their full advantage.

  • Choose flowering plants that have attractive foliage, such as Alchemilla mollis and geranium so that they add interest to the border over several months.

Hostas are usually grown for their foliage- which comes in all sorts of patterns and hues, but the flowers can also be very attractive

Hostas are usually grown for their foliage- which comes in all sorts of patterns and hues, but the flowers can also be very attractive

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

Old School Gardener



Having been over to Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum today to do some gardening, I couldn’t resist snapping the front border, which was my first design and create project there a few years ago. The combination of grasses, shrubs and annuals was looking great in the sun, so here’s a sample. Sorry to show off!

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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Flowers of Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Flowers of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’


OK, when you think ‘grass’ in the garden you’ll probably think ‘lawn’. Though they’re hard work to keep looking good and not the most environmentally friendly form of gardening, I do like the way a nice green sward sets off colourful and interesting borders. I’ve just given a part of my own lawn here at Old school Garden a bit of TLC, scarifying, aerating and treating with an Autumn ‘weed and feed’. However, living in one of the driest parts of the UK, means that lawn care can be rather disheartening, as it quickly turns brown in the summer.

But I’m not really here to talk about lawns. This and the next article in my new series aiming to help you with design tips for your garden, are focused on another use of grasses- in the border. When you think about it, grasses are probably the plant that humanity has cultivated the longest, albeit originally it was for food rather than aesthetic reasons. Grasses have been rather slower coming into our gardens, and then they have often been treated as ‘alien invaders’ to be pulled out and ‘dealt with’ as all ‘weeds’ are.

I suppose ornamental gardening did not really start in earnest until the seventeenth century and it was then that the first grass was listed as an ornamental plant- ‘Feather grass’ (Stipa pennata), grown for its long, feathery awns (needle thin bristles attached to the flowers of grasses and the things that often give them their golden glow as they catch the sunlight). This English native was listed in John Kingston Galpine’s Catalogue of 1782. A century later the famous ‘naturalistic’ gardener William Robinson was listing nearly 30 varieties in his classic book, ‘The English Flower Garden’. However only about twelve of these were used in gardens, and then as curiosities, as specimens amid the wider swathes of lawn grass.

Robinson, and later Gertrude Jekyll, were the founders of the Edwardian ‘naturalistic garden within formal bounds’ style (not forgetting my architectural and landscape designer hero, Sir Edwin Lutyens). Jekyll was specific about the placing of grasses – often close to water, but also in borders (e.g. Blue Lyme Grass or Elymus arenarius) and Luzula sylvatica (Common Woodrush) in woodland, used as ground cover.

Stipa gigantea

Stipa gigantea


Both Robinson and Jekyll were influential in America, where some grasses such as Miscanthus and Pampas grasses were proving popular, fitting in well in large American landscapes. This was the birth of the ‘prairie style’ of garden design in America where designers such as Jens Jensen and Frank Llloyd Wright led the way.

After a dip in popularity the style returned in the 1950’s, and at about the same time, on continental Europe nurserymen like German Karl Foerster (who’s given his name to one of my favourite grasses, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), were assembling plants from around the world and associating them with the naturalistic style of garden design. Foerster was followed by another group of nurserymen who advocated the use of grasses in forming natural, self sustaining plant communities where pesticides and herbicides would not be necessary. Another stimulus was the growing awareness of climate change and the increased frequency of drought conditions, so choosing plants that could withstand these harsher times were a logical response.

Leaves of Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus'- Zebra grass

Leaves of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’- Zebra grass


The combination of interest in North America and continental Europe led to the modern ‘new wave’ garden of designers like the Oehem van Sweden partnership in east coast America. From  here the ideas of naturalistic planting spread to South America under the patronage of designer Burle Marx and in more modern times via Dutchman Piet Oudulph, who has created some classic gardens in the UK and been very influential in the use of grasses and other ’prairie plants’ as stand alone designs, as well as leading to the increased use of grasses within traditional herbaceous and mixed borders.

This is how I use grasses in Old School Garden and in some of my designs for other gardens, e.g. the entrance border at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, Norfolk.

So that’s the background to grasses in the garden – what are the design tips to follow?  My next article will tell all….

Part of the Piet Oudolph beds at RHS Wisley Gardens

Part of the Piet Oudolph – designed beds at RHS Wisley Gardens


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

Further information: Prairie planting

Old School Gardener

A rose trained along a rope 'swag' between posts provides a permeable divider in the garden

A rose trained along a rope ‘swag’ between posts provides a permeable divider in the garden

Regular readers may recall that I recently mentioned my plans to run a second Garden Design course at Reepham, here in Norfolk. I’m pleased to say that this has now begun and I’m looking forward to working with the 8 enthusiastic participants over the next few weeks to come up with designs and ideas for their gardens.

Coincidentally, I was also contacted recently by one of the students on the first course, Angela, who lives in a village nearby. She updated me on what she’s done in her garden since the course and was trying to arrange a meeting with her fellow students to share progress and ideas. She also asked for some advice. As this raised an interesting issue, I thought I’d share it with you as this week’s ‘GQT’. Her question is:

‘We took out a hedge last year between our vegetable garden and the lawn.  Most of the hedge area plus a bit of lawn is now a border, and we’d like to put in some sort of screen where the hedge was.  We don’t want a solid screen and were thinking of espalier fruit trees.  However, we do not need any more fruit trees and I think something of winter interest would be better.  Thoughts so far include Pyracantha or maybe Cotoneaster.  Do you think Pyracantha would work?’

A Pyracantha hedge

A Pyracantha hedge

Well Angela, Pyracantha makes a lovely informal hedge, with spring flowers and autumn berries as well as evergreen foliage (see the picture above).

However the ones suitable for hedging can grow to 2 – 3 metres high (and can also be quite wide), so unless you keep it cut back it will provide a pretty dense and high screen, perhaps not what you were looking for? The Cotoneasters suitable for a hedge (e.g C. lacteus) have similar range of interest to Pyracantha and are also pretty dense and tall, unless kept in trim. But doing this rather defeats the object of an ‘informal’ hedge, unless you keep trimming to a minimal tidy up of loose ends!

If a more permeable screen is what you’re after, you could go for a backdrop of grasses that would add a lovely golden colour to a border at this time of year.

If they are in a sheltered spot they will stand tall and provide some winter interest (cut them to ground level in the spring); an example is Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. You could of course mix these along the line of the old hedge with evergreen shrubs (themselves with a variety of interest through the seasons). This would once again define the back of the border in an informal way, leaving ‘peep holes’ through the grasses into the garden beyond.

If you’re looking for something to provide a strong linear backdrop to your border but still give views through to the next garden, another idea might be to go for some sort of post and rail/rope structure (the latter is known as a ‘swag’- see the picture at the top of the article), or even a series of wide – opening trellis panels.

This then gives you the option of climbers to train up and along the wood/rope, but gives you views/glimpses through to what lies beyond. You could go for a mixture of climbers to give you a range of seasonal interest. Clematis of different varieties will give you flowers throughout the year, including winter flowers (e.g C. cirrhosa and its cultivars have winter flowers in creamy/ freckled shades and evergreen leaves). And some varieites give you other sorts of Autumn/winter interest. For example C. tangutica and it’s cultivars have some lovely ‘hairy’ seed heads that last into winter. Rambling/ climbing roses would also provide summer/early autumn flowers, followed by hips on some varieties. However, some of the Clematis (e.g cirrhosa) can get quite bushy so will need to be kept in check if you want to have views through – and the roses will also need pruning. Another option is to train a Pyracantha along a post and rail barrier to give you that ‘espalier’ effect you mentioned (see picture below).

Pyracantha coccinea trained along post and rails

Pyracantha coccinea trained along post and rails

Alternatively try one of the above options, but additionally introduce some winter interest directly into your border – e.g colourful stems from the various Cornus (Dogwoods), or foliage, flower and fragrance from any number of shrubs; e.g Daphne, Winter Jasmine, Eleagnus, Euonymus, various Viburnums etc.

Further information:

Hedge selector

10 AGM variegated evergreen shrubs- RHS

Hedge planting- RHS

All about Pyracantha

Related article:

GQT: Climbers as clothing… and as heighteners and dividers

Old School Gardener

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