Friday, 31 October 2014

Ornamental grasses

Whether it’s due to the autumn sun showing them off to particuarlly fine effect, or to the inescapbable truth that almost everything else in the borders is either starting to look a little tired, or has turned to mush, October has been a month when ornamental grasses have reigned supreme in the garden.

I took myself off to Wisley one afternoon to spend some time with the grasses planted in front of the Lindley Library. This is a wonderful spot in which to appreciate the range and also the spectacle of a masssed planting of ornamental grasses; you can retreat over the lawns of Seven Acres and look back towards the borders, one moment scanning across the aggregated planting and enjoying the whole as a single, dynamic composition, and the next focussing in on the varied forms and textures of individual specimens.

But – true to form – what I particularly wanted to do was to stick my nose right into the plants and get to know some of them, if not intimately, then at least on slightly more familiar terms. And since grasses tend to flower towards the end of the season, finally flinging their flowering stems skywards having spent the first months of the year in various manifestations of hummock, mound or amorphous clump, this was a perfect time of year in which to indulge my wish.

There is one other reason for my chosing this approach to ornamental grasses, which is probably best broached after the manner of a confession. In truth, I am still haunted by the suburban pampas grass of the 1970s. The mere sight of a large cortaderia standing in its own space is sufficient to conjur spectral figures from Abigail’s Party, waftily dancing to Demis Roussos. This isn't to say that I believe you should be prevented from enjoying a single specimen in all its statuesque glory, but rather that, for me at least, such a bold statement carries too much baggage. I prefer to enjoy the plant as part of a group, surrounded by complementary forms which blur its edges while accentuating its imposing presence and the graceful opulence of its blooms.

It strikes me as odd that something as simple as a grass can trigger such a strong reaction, but I reason that childhood memories are some of the most potent, and there’s no reason why the symbols attached to them shouldn’t belong to the plant kingdom. With which digression, I fix a lens to the camera and march straight up to the object in question, Cortaderia selloana 'Pumila', a cultivar on which the RHS has seen fit to bestow the honour of its Award of Garden Merit. I can’t deny, it’s a handsome fellow, with a wonderful contrast between the apparent fluffiness of the white-gold panicles, and the thin, glaucus strapped leaves with their wickedly serrated edges. I push to the back of my mind the recollection that one of my clients has a specimen that needs moving. A job for another day.

There’s a particular property of certain grasses that I find fascinating, an almost metallic sheen to the flowers which catches the light in such as way that a drift of them planted to catch the low autumn sun will appear to be a diaphonous cloud of spun wire, on which are threaded small beads of the same metal. It’s not particularly easy to capture as a still image, as the gently movement of the stems refracts the light continually and causes the whole to sparkle, adding greatly to the impression. Quite a breathtaking effect, and one I noticed first with Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau'.

But this quality is not limited to Deschampsia, though from what alloy the red-purple flowers of Panicum virgatum 'Warrior' could have been spun, I haven’t a notion.

This switch grass grows to a height of around 1.5m, as does its near relative P. 'Heavy Metal'. This latter variety shares the reddish autumn tints with its cousin, but ironically possesses a somewhat more military bearing than the slightly lax 'Warrior', standing to attention in well-defined, upright clumps.

Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal'
I tend to think of grasses as naturally assuming more rounded, or arching shapes, so it’s useful when considering a new planting to be able to include a few with a more columnar habit. Another switch grass takes this a step further, Panicum virgatum 'Northwind', its blue-grey foliage beginning to take on its autumnal golden hues in the photograph here.

This reminded me of one other stalwart, the reliable and rather beautiful, if austere, Calamagrostis x arcutiflora 'Karl Foerster', its uncompromisingly vertical flower stems turning to a shade generally referred to as ‘biscuit’ by mid summer. Sure enough, I found some in the beds here, standing like a pair of shock-headed sentries between a cortaderia on one side and a tall miscanthus on the other.

Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' in the foreground
The coppery red theme was again in evidence on several of the cultivars of Miscanthus sinensis. Pictured here is M. sinensis 'Little Zebra', a compact form of 'Zebrinus' with the same yellow/green bands on leaves, only reaching a maximum of 1.5 metres in height, rather less than the towering specimens I’m more used to.

Miscanthus 'Little Zebra'
Miscanthus 'Little Zebra'. A great grass for a smaller space
'Gnome' is another shorter cultivar with a reddish flush, although without the banding on the leaves. I wasn’t hugely taken with it – perhaps the 'Little Zebra' had dazzled me.

Miscanthus 'Gnome'. Marginally more attractive than its name would suggest
Making my way towards the end of the borders (quite coincidentally the point nearest to the restaurant) I began to encounter the fountain grasses – mounds of fresh green foliage topped with the most inviting flowers invoking nothing so much as the foxtails which give rise to another of the common names for Pennisetum, the foxtail grass.

The first of these, with its long, tapering flowers in shades of light pink, initially gave rise to some confusion as the only label in close proximity proclaimed Molinia  caeruliea subsp arundinacea 'Zuneigung', and I was fairly sure it wasn’t that. Subsequent confirmation from persons more knowledgeable than myself verified that that this was, as I’d assumed, Pennisetum 'Fairy Tails' (sometimes available as 'Fairy Tales', rather losing the point of the pun in the cultivar name), which fades to tan and beige later in the season, reaching a height of 1.2m.

Pennisetum 'Fairy Tails'

The late flowering Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Moudry' has purplish black flowers, and a shaggier disposition, to the extent that I can’t help being reminded of Dougal from the Magic Roundabout when looking at a largish clump. It’s not unnatractive, though, just a more open, relaxed proposition than 'Fairy Tails'.

Having by this time filled my head with grasses and my memory card with photographs, my stomach was starting to crave similar attention and, as luck would have it, I was within yards of the door to the Conservatory Cafe. Wisley’s rather good at that; no matter where your garden wanderings have taken you, you never seem to be far from an eatery, giving you the perfect opporutnity to ponder the plants you’ve recently been obsessing over while stuffing your face. As clear a case of having your cake and eating it as I can think of.