The green, green grass of home

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
September 2010

Steffie Shields highlights ornamental grasses and prairie planting.
‘Charity begins at home’ – this oft-mentioned quote rings true when you consider the wealth of wonderful gardens open for charity in the county. This gives us a chance for time-out, exploring ‘pastures new’ with family and friends but also supports very worthy causes. The valiant efforts of a band of enthusiastic garden owners also means there is plenty of inspiration for updating our own gardens, with fashionable new design ideas and plant combinations waiting to be discovered on most of our doorsteps. Everyone’s a winner.

The highlight last September was a visit to the gardens of South Lodge in Ropsley, open with the kind permission of Mr Turner in aid of the armed forces charity, Help for Heroes. The sun shone brilliantly, the sky was azure blue. A smiling garden designer, Russ Yates, was on hand to talk about his planting to the masses of visitors enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll, and a rewarding cup of tea and cake. The most eye-catching feature across a vast expanse of lawn was an iron-work gazebo on a gentle, raised mount, perhaps created with the spoil from a network of large ponds beyond. The mound was crossed or quartered by lush grass paths, and each quarter ornamented with a large island bed full of colour and interest. I enjoyed pausing to take in the superb planting – vigorous roses including ‘New Dawn’, bold clumps of reddening sedum, variegated hosta and New Zealand flax. Great arching feathery wands of golden oats grass, Stipa gigantea, caught the sunlight alongside wavy drifts of purple Verbena bonariensis. I remember, once, falling for this ornamental grass, also known as giant oats grass. I planted it on the west–side, picturing that the low afternoon sun would burnish the quaking fronds. It was a failure. The spot I chose was choked by ground elder and partly-shaded by trees, so it never flourished. Seeing it catch the light at South Lodge, I thought I must give it another go, in full sun this time, because it is a magnificent grass that lifts a garden just as the days begin to shorten, and brings drama like a feather boa to an actress’s shoulders.

Clearly, Russ, who once worked at the British Embassy in Japan and is now based in Skillington, has an eye for texture and colour and runs courses on planting and design I believe. (See Another of his borders was set against a backdrop of silver birch, displaying grasses of all sorts, including tufted hummocks of low-growing, silvery blue grass, Festuca glauca, and purple verbena again, interspersed with the dark plum foliage of miniature red dahlias. A simplified, very effective scheme for late summer, the imperial colours red and purple make a great combination – but they need the uniting green of grass to link the colours and make them zing. I left with my mind tuned to thinking about our forces serving overseas and Tom Jones’s ‘Green, green grass of home’.

There has been much interest in this kind of ‘prairie planting’ lately, expanding the ideas of the dry garden or gravel gardens on a grander scale. I am increasingly drawn to this more natural type of planting in drifts which often sits better with rural surroundings. With the environmental concerns of water, and continuing talk of climate change, grasses and wind and drought tolerant plants are a good option for Lincolnshire’s exposed gardens. It makes sense to think about plants that are butch enough to cope in dry seasons. Here grasses probably head the list, with an added bonus, they do not need staking or pruning and grow by themselves! Great fillers for those in-between spots where you are undecided as to what to plant, tall grasses have presence. They give airy height, offer movement in every breeze, and look brilliant in early morning and evening sunlight. Others almost as ephemeral clouds soften the effect of more rigid neighbours or clipped hedging. Go and see the use of ornamental grass in the wonderfully romantic Old Rectory garden at East Keal, at Harrington Hall, where the mere mention of the famous nineteenth century poet who used to visit, recalls gaily regimented beds of annuals loved by Victorians. However, now Tennyson’s High Walk, which used to be a wide, bare gravel terrace, has golden grasses woven in amongst shrubs and perennials.

Just as wheat and barley fields, ornamental grasses change colour slowly as they ripen with a metallic sheen, gold or bronze, and later bleached blond in the sun. Somehow grasses help to root the garden naturally in the landscape and add a subtle, much-needed texture. There are many varieties to choose from – but beware, because some seed around as profusely as lawn grass. Cortaderia or ‘Pampas Grass’ on a small garden patch of lawn puts me in mind of 1960’s planting, a bit boring most of the time. Besides, the sharp edges of the spiny leaves can be razor-sharp, and lethal for small children. However, if you have space, seeming acres of land, it is a grand eye-catcher when it flowers with a fountain of silvery plumes. Miscanthus sinsensis, tall, slow-growing grasses are my favourites – very stately once established, and great for the back of a border. I love the reddish stems of Miscanthus sinensis malepartus. The cross-stitch pattern of stems and leaves changing colour is intriguing, and its feathery spikes blowing in the wind attractive. These fronds remain a feature late into winter.

So putting down grass roots is definitely worth considering. I hope you get out and about this month to support those who open their gardens for good causes. There may be grasses for sale on the plants table. Do support therapeutic moves to help the rehabilitation of returning troops by training them in garden skills. Gardens, especially those with acres of calming grass, are places of comfort, and inspiration to help the healing process. We have much to be thankful for in these shores. I still remember the restful peace and quiet exploring Simon and Annetta Turner’s Folkingham garden last September. Comma butterflies were dancing on the borders, landing on sedums and verbena. The so-called pink-tinged blond, wispy, pheasant grass, Stipa tenuifolia, encircling a feature tree was asking for a photograph. It seemed to hold the sun’s rays as if it were candy floss!

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