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The Joys of Ornamental Grasses

Late summer is when many grasses come into their own, with golden seed heads shimmering and swaying in the breeze. They look great in big drifts, acting like a neutral foil to colourful late flowering perennials like echinacea, gaura, anemones, sedums and Verbena bonariensis. But they also work well dotted around smaller gardens knitting plants together and adding a naturalism, movement and texture to planting. Most grasses like sun and free draining soil though some such as anemanthele lessioniana and deschampsia thrive in semi shade. Here are a few to try:

Tall and statuesque

Miscanthus. Some of the best grasses for striking silky seed heads, they tend to flower late but make a real statement when they do. M. sinensis ‘Malepartus’ is a statuesque variety (2m) with a fountain of burgundy flowers, while M. Ferner Osten’ is slightly smaller. M. Adagio is a compact variety with a mass of shimmery silvery flowers.

Stipa giganteum. This is a big statement grass, which throws its tall oaty flower heads high into the air – and is best in an open spot where the sun can shine through, turning them golden. It needs full sun and good drainage.

Calamaacutifolia x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.  A great grass with a very upright habit and fabulous seed heads. Unlike many grasses, the fresh green leaves arrive early in the season, before the fluffy purple flowers emerge, which finally turn to straw-coloured seed heads in summer, lasting through the winter.

Medium sized grasses

Stipa tenuissima.  Also known as ‘Mexican feather grass’ this is useful semi evergreen grass with fine wispy leaves and feathery silvery gold seed heads in summer. It’s lovely mingling with perennials such as salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’ or knautia. It likes full sun and well-drained soil. Comb out tatty bits or cut right down in spring for a fresh flush of green.

Calamagrostis ‘Overdam’. Rarer and smaller (1m) than Karl Foerster, this is a pretty grass with an upright habit and cream striped leaves. Or try Calamagrostis brachytricha which has pale fluffy flower heads in late August, that turn buttery coloured – it also has a more relaxed arching habit.

Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’.  A mound-forming evergreen grass, this has silvery purple flowers in the summer, maturing to a cloud of delicate golden seed heads. It’s happy in sun or part shade, in well-drained soil.

Small and perfectly formed

Festuca glauca
This is a useful low growing evergreen grass that creates mounds of fine blue-green foliage. It needs plenty of sun but doesn’t like to dry out, and in the right conditions sends up silvery grey flowers in summer. It works well with purples, pinks and whites.

Hakonechloa macra. This is a gorgeous short grass with lush green foliage – a little like bamboo in feel. It’s happy in dappled shade and is fantastic en masse underplanting trees, where it cascades like flowing water, or for edging paths and borders.

Sesleria autumnalis. A new favourite of mine, this is a low growing evergreen grass with mounds of bright green strappy leaves that turn more lime coloured in winter. It has short silvery flower spires in the summer.

Grass care: Cut deciduous grasses right back in late winter, before the new growth has got going. Remove seeds heads from evergreen varieties and comb them through with your fingers to remove tatty old growth.

@janinewinslaw

This article first appeared in the September issue of SE22.