Country & garden: The grass is not always greener

Milder winters do not flatter ornamental grasses, but in the right conditions they can make a border come alive.

Where are the snows (and frosts) of yesteryear? As the evidence piles up that our climate is beginning to change, gardeners don't know whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, they can see all the delicious possibilities of growing hitherto tender plants out of doors, without the expense or fuss of protecting them under glass in winter; on the other, they fear the effect on traditional, favourite plants of droughty, blazingly hot summers and wetter, warmer, windier winters, without long spells of cold to kill off pernicious pests, nor the chance to experience the beauty of frost or light snow on grass and leaf. After such a warm autumn, I am perilously close to tears.

I only have to think of ornamental grasses for my lip to tremble. For mounded clumps of arching, strappy leaves, pierced by tall stems of feathery heads, are just asking to be silvered by glistening frost. Yet here in Northamptonshire at least, any frost there has been this autumn has melted away in a matter of hours, and we have seen no snow at all.

Except when touched by rime, grasses have an understated beauty, as if they were young girls at their first dance, who had lived sheltered lives and never been told how lovely they were. They don't so much grab the limelight as back into it, when the stage has emptied of more confident performers. If herbaceous, they display subtle, but alluring, autumn colours in buff, brown, orange, bronze, or even red; if evergreen, they provide a kind of fluid structure, a yielding geometry to the winter border, not always very sturdy or dense, but they are nevertheless distinct.

Ornamental grasses are, therefore, just the ticket if you are trying to escape the tyranny of traditional border planting: those uneven-numbered clumps of perennials, tall at the back, short at the front. I use the evergreen (well, everorange-bronze) Chionochloa rubra, for example, as a leitmotif to run in a (densely-planted) curving, rippling stream through two borders separated from each other by a broad flight of steps. This leitmotif may not be exactly Wagnerian in scale and intensity, but it is pleasing and unifying, none the less.

Deciduous grasses, which have leaves which are coloured or variegated through the summer, often retain some of that variegation even when the colour is bleaching out of the leaves in autumn. Miscanthus sinensis "Zebrinus", for example, which has the horizontal banding (hence its common name of "Zebra Grass") does not lose that banding completely even when the green pigment disintegrates.

There are also a number of grasses which lend themselves to having their stems cut in late autumn, and hung up to dry for indoor decoration. Pampas Grasses (Cortaderia selloana "Sunningdale" and the dwarf form "Pumila") are only the best-known of these, for the many cultivars of Miscanthus sinensis - "Silberfeder", "Malepartus" and "Kleine Fontane", for example - are also suitable, as is the "Mosquito Grass", Bouteloua gracilis.

Grasses are categorised, by experts, as either "cool-season" (like Calamagrostis, Deschampsia and Molinia) or "warm-season" plants (for example, Panicum, Miscanthus, Chionochloa, Cortaderia). In layman's terms, the former come into growth in late winter or early spring, like hardy perennials, and can be treated in the same way, amenable to being planted out of containers in autumn or spring. They flower in spring or summer and are pretty hardy.

The latter come into growth in early summer, flower in late summer and often retain their seedheads for months. Many are not as hardy as "cool- season" grasses. It is important that they are not planted until they begin to make growth. These are, principally, the grasses of choice for impact in the winter garden, so now is an excellent time to think about what you want and where and how to order them. Grasses rarely give much clue to their appeal, when seen in pots in garden centres, so I suggest you get hold of a catalogue from a specialist nursery, which will tell you something of the plants you want to buy, and order them now for late spring delivery.

The time to appreciate grasses in winter is before the New Year, I always feel. Once the year has turned, those which have been left, uncut, to decorate the winter garden can begin to look distinctly tatty.

Wet and windy weather, particularly, will take its toll on them, savaging the seedheads and bending the stems in half. If the climatologists have predicted right, that process may happen even earlier in future. Oh dear, pass the Kleenex.

Apple Court, Hordle Lane, Hordle, Lymington, Hants SO41 0HU has an excellent catalogue of grasses. The proprietor, Roger Grounds, is author of `The Plantfinder's Guide to Ornamental Grasses' (David & Charles, pounds 19.99). Call 01590 642130 or visit PW Plants, Sunnyside, Heath Road, Kenninghall, Norfolk, NR16 2DS (01953 888212) and Hoecroft Plants, Severals Grange, Holt Road, Wood Norton, Norfolk NR20 5BL (01362 684206) also carry good lists.

The illustration is taken from Ursula Buchan's `Plants for All Seasons' (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 16.99)

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