In late summer and early autumn, ornamental grasses really start to shine. They divide gardeners into two camps; those who love grasses and those who can’t see the point. I’m firmly in the first camp, but haven’t always been. I do think grasses can look funny plonked in the middle of a border that doesn’t suit them. They need the right partners if they’re to look their best.
Dutch landscape designer, Piet Oudolf, is renowned for his combination of grasses and perennials – a technique called ‘prairie planting’. He does it on a huge scale at places such as Pensthorpe wildlife reserve in Norfolk and Scampston Hall in North Yorkshire, but the principles are the same if you try it in your own garden.
Piet combines wispy, textural grasses with robust clump-forming perennials. The dynamic grass blades and their fluffy flowers make a beautiful foil for the colourful flowers of plants such as daisy-like echinacea and rudbeckia and slender spires of deep purple salvias, mauve agastache or towering veronicastrum.
To get the prairie look, try manageable grasses such as Stipa tenuissima – small and frothy with soft, tactile strands in pale beige – or pheasant’s tail grass, Anemanthele lessoniana. Its blades emerge green, but turn rusty orange as summer fades and autumn begins. Its reddish flowers add an extra layer of interest.
Chionochloa rubra is a neat choice, forming a fountain-shaped clump that never gets too big. I grow mine with Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’, yellow-flowered phlomis and echinops (a thistle with spherical blue flowers).
Miscanthus grasses have gorgeous silky-tasselled flowers in autumn that last well into winter and look gorgeous when dusted with frost, but a lot of them grow very tall. Stick to a smaller variety such as M sinensis ‘Morning Light’ and wear gloves if you are working around it as miscanthus blades have surprisingly sharp edges.
Avoid monstrous grasses such as the pampas, Cortaderia selloana. The large feathery flowers are beautiful, but at 3m (9ft 10in) tall and 1.5m (4ft 11in) across and with lethally sharp leaves, they’re a bit of a challenge!
MUST-BUY PLANT… Pennisetum
EVERY DAY: Pennisetum villosum
A deciduous grass that produces plume-like creamy white flowers
in late summer through to early autumn.
EXTRA-SPECIAL: Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’
A stunning alternative to P villosum with deep maroon-tinged leaves and burgundy-pink feathery flowers.
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