Ornamental grasses are an often overlooked feature of smaller gardens and something that are expected to occupy their own large grass border. If you haven’t the space then why have your own collection as they’ll take up precious space, well this isn’t the case and it’s a myth that we can help dispel. Grasses come in such a huge variety of shapes and sizes that there really is a place for them in any garden, maybe though a dominating Pampas might have to be consigned to only the larger sites. They’re one of my all time favourites and something that any garden layout that I create will contain, sometimes with spot plants and others with prairie style drifts sweeping through more traditional perennials. However you choose to plant them you can always find the right grass to fit into where you want and they’ll change the look of traditional beds into a varied and delightful vista.
If I had to pick a favourite it would almost certainly be Stipa tenuissima with it’s fine leaves and swathes of delicate flowers that just float among the other plants. It’s the perfect compliment to almost anything being most suited though where is can form a base to taller plants such a Verbena bonariensis or even the spindly limbs of the Lychnis coronaria. I have them growing alongside some deep purple Heucheras and the effect is one of most beautiful that I have in the garden and one that is perfectly suited to a small low border where there is a little shade. Due to the fact that they’re a fairly small grass and don’t sprawl around too much from where they’re put you can also use them to line a path if you have a lot. The delicate flower heads will give the path a wonderful flowing effect, if interspersed with purple headed alliums it will tie them together for an excellent look. Luckily these are easy to propagate from seed each year although you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ll be waiting a while when you see the single fine leaf that germinates. They will become substantial specimens in no time at all. It will also suit being the centre piece in a potted display where it could be surrounded with lower summer annuals, giving the effect of a green fountain erupting from within. Surround it with some low ground cover such as a small Ilex, Ajuga reptans or a frothy Alyssum and they’ll brighten any light patio.
Another delicate grass that will fill in a gap without trying to take centre stage is Panicum elegans. A leafy grass that throws up what literally look like fireworks on tall narrow stems, with names like ‘Sprinkles’ and ‘Frosted Explosion’ you can get an idea of what’s in store. So delicate are the flowers that they become almost transparent showing the back of the bed through, planted with a colourful backdrop will almost certainly make any situation that they appear in look like an award winning display. Grasses are also often overlooked for cutting flowers as they lack much definable colour but that is something that this plant make up for in elegance. The tiny dots that are the flower heads look excellent when added to a display giving a lightness that is almost impossible with anything else. Also as they dry so well you’ll find that they’ll long outlive most other flowers when they’ve been cut. In the UK this is grown as a half hardy annual but is easily grown from seed in early spring, but if you’re feeling a little more extravagant and are short on time or space then you can have seedlings delivered from mid spring. Either way they’re a simple and cost effective way to add a sparkle to a flower bed.
If you want to gain a little height then take something like Pennisetum macrourum (African Feather Grass). This will grow up to several meters tall and will definitely give stature to the back of a bed or standing tall among other more robust looking plants. The flowers on this tall grass give a sensitive animation to a bed that might otherwise look fairly static, drifting in the summer breeze. This grass has prominent flower heads typical of many grasses but with a bit more grandeur. One of these standing among a group of taller perennials will certainly stand it’s own, or again with a swathe of them drifting from back to front will create a delicate division to stop some of the more boisterous plants from competing. It’ll then remain throughout winter adding height where everything else will have faded away, until spring where you can revitalise it for another year.
Propagating ornamental grasses
If you do find that any of these are outgrowing their location then you’ll find that perennial grasses are easily propagated by division, unlike most herbaceous perennials they shouldn’t be divided too early though. If they are then the roots can suffer in the cold and damp, preferring to wait until the weather has warmed and there is clear indication that the plant has started to grow again. If the grass is small then they can be divided by hand, removing them from the pot or from the ground and gently separating into two. If they’re larger than makes this possible then you can lift and then divide by putting two forks back to back in the middle and gently easing them apart. Once they’re done simply replant the parts, water well and enjoy the fruits of your labours.
Although they look fantastic as they’re growing with the freshness of the green leaves coming up they are at their best from Summer through to Autumn. As the flower heads shoot up on the slender stems you get a real sense of the beauty that they bring. So don’t shy away from owning your own collection of grasses because you think that there isn’t space, find the right grass for the right situation and pop it in. You’ll not be disappointed with the dramatic effect that it will have on your garden.