GARDENING; Splendour in the grasses

Most gardeners curse the time spent cutting it or digging it out. But some grass can be an asset, says Michael Leapman
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The Independent Culture
GROWING grasses in the garden does not, on the face of it, seem much of a thrill or a challenge. Most of us already have our patch of perennial rye grass that we ambitiously call a lawn, and we spend much of the summer weeding unwelcome clumps of tresspassing grass from the flower and vegetable beds. Why bring in more of the stuff, when there are so many colourful and versatile plants to fill our beds with?

Yet some of the most eye-catching model gardens at this year's major flower shows have contained a high proportion of ornamental grasses - a category generally broadened to include bamboos. At the Hampton Court show in July, Today newspaper won a silver medal for its "garden of grasses", designed by Geoffrey Whiten and Andrea Parsons. Many of the grasses grown in it were supplied by Bransford Nurseries, the large wholesale supplier near Wor-cester. Will Tooby, the nurseries' managing director, is a tremendous enthusiast for grasses.

"I've always been interested in bamboos and ornamental grasses because they offer architectural qualities that a lot of other plants don't give," he says. "A garden has to be a place of constant visual interest and that isn't just about flowers. Certain grasses can give impacts that you don't get with any other plant."

The nursery was started by Tooby's father more than 30 years ago, on what used to be his fruit and hop farm, and today it is a major supplier of container plants to garden centres. It's only in the last few years that it has it included a substantial range of grasses, with 37 varieties listed in the current catalogue.

Although the influential Victorian garden writer William Robinson was an early enthusiast for ornamental glasses, until recently almost the only variety to be spotted in British gardens was the tall and assertive pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana). Some people sneer at this as the horticultural equivalent of owning a rott-weiler - but not all ornamental grasses are so overpowering.

"I was inspired by a garden at the Glasgow Garden Festival a few years back, which contained several interesting grass specimens," Mr Tooby recollects. "It struck both me and my sales manager as being an opportunity. Only one or two varieties were then being grown commercially and they weren't being promoted at all. Even bamboos were poorly available in the trade.

"Then I helped out when Geoff Whiten wanted some grasses for a garden he was designing for the BBC. I was handing out leaflets about them there and I was amazed how many people were interested. They were hungry for more know-ledge. I'd still call it a fringe interest but it's certainly growing." Later, Bransford Nurseries produced a bamboo and grass garden for the Welsh Garden Festival, which won three awards.

The vogue for grasses is part of the reaction against dazzling colours in the garden. Although they all have flowers of a kind - and some of them are useful in dried-flower arrangements - they are not brightly coloured because they do not need to attract insects to pollinate them: grasses are either self-pollinating or pollinated by the wind.

Their appeal is in the leaf, often curving in a graceful arc from the centre. The plants come in all sizes, from tall bamboos swaying in the breeze, to neat clumps of ground cover. Their leaves are in varying shades of green, yellow and bronze, sometimes striped or otherwise variegated.

There are grasses to suit nearly all growing conditions. Some, such as the Japanese sedges, like their roots to be kept moist, and are ideal for planting alongside a pool. others, like the red-leaved Uncinia rubra, prefer it dry and do well on rockeries or by paving. Most will grow in sun or shade, although variegated leaves produce more dramatic colour contrasts if they are shaded. Some varieties are evergreens, but others die back in winter.

Grasses are seldom at their most effective if planted singly. They look best huddled in groups composed either of a single variety or of contrasting leaf patterns. They also add texture and interest to mixed and herbaceous borders.

"You can use them in the smallest and largest gardens," says Mr Tooby enthusiastically. "You can create a lovely, discreet, Japanese-type garden in a very small space. They sit particularly well in a terrace or patio garden where there's a lot of paving or gravel."

Grasses are nearly always sold as young container plants because the variegated kinds do not breed true from seed. The growing conditions required do not vary much from those for any other plant: healthy soil boosted each year by a good compost and general fertiliser, kept moist in dry weather. They need little attention apart from a trim in the winter or spring, when dead leaves should be cut away. That is also the time to divide any clumps that are outgrowing their space.

Even if your soil is very poor - maybe you have just moved into a new house where the garden is thick with builders' rubble - there is at least one kind of grass you should be able to grow. Koeleria cristata Glauca is an appealing blue-leaved variety with tufty spikes that survives almost anywhere and is especially fond of chalk.

Some gardeners are wary of grasses because they fear that, like lawn grass, they may spread uncontrollably once established. That is true of some varieties, such as the greater pond sedge (Carex riparia "Variegata"), but the problem can be solved by keeping them in containers, where the leaves look good tumbling over the side.

"There are some grasses that I would discourage people from growing because they become a nuisance," Mr Tooby says. "But of course there are situations, like awkward corners where not much else will grow, where you want them to be invasive." Other species, including Carex comans "small red", are non-invasive and form neat, self-contained clumps.

The American poet Walt Whitman believed that "a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars". Gardeners do not need to become so lyrical to recognise the species as a useful way of enhancing the shape and character of their garden. !

TOP TWELVE GRASSES AND BEST BAMBOOS

Miscanthus sinensis "Zebrinus" (zebra grass) belongs to a large family of tall Japanese grasses that tolerate dry conditions. Its pale yellow stripes run across leaves rather than along them (160cm)

Deschampsia caespitosa (tufted hair grass) is a tough grass with dark green leaves that set off the pretty brown flowers, lasting well into winter. Likes moisture and some shade (120cm)

Elymus arenarius (blue lyme grass) has electric blue leaves that die down in the winter. Does not mind sandy soil and spreads quickly (120cm)

Glyceria maxima "Variegata" (reed manna grass) is at home with its roots in water or in a moist border. The cream and green leaves have a touch of pink in spring (90cm)

Phalaris arundinacea "Picta" (gardeners' garters) is one of the most widely available grasses, with green and white striped leaves that die back in the winter. It will grow almost anywhere (90cm)

Alopecurus pratensis "Aureus" (golden foxtail) has golden leaves in spring, flower spikes in summer. Likes most conditions (70cm)

Briza media (quaking grass) gets its popular name from the ratt-ling sound its purple flowers make in the wind. The dried flowers are useful in flower arrangements (60cm)

Milium effusum "Aureum" (golden wood millet) is a tough evergreen with yellow foliage and golden flower spikes in summer which tolerates a lot of shade (60cm)

Molinia caerulea "Variegata" (purple moor grass) has yellow striped leaves that grow straight up when young then arch gracefully; purple flowers in late summer (60cm)

Carex elate "Aurea"(Bowles's golden sedge) has bright gold leaves with thin green margins. Looks marvellous near a pool (40cm)

Carex oshimensis "Evergold" (Japanese sedge grass) gets its varietal name because its evergreen leaf carries a bold, golden stripe. It thrives in a variety of conditions (20cm)

Ophiopogon planiscapus "Nigrescens" (black lily grass) is often grown as ground cover, its purple leaves forming an unusual carpet; small mauve flowers in August (15cm)

BEST OF THE BAMBOOS

Phyllostachys aurea (fishpole bamboo) has tough, flexible stems sometimes used to make fishing rods (160cm.)

Pleioblastus variegatus (Arundinaria fortunei) is a semi-dwarf with white variegated leaf; needs some shade (80cm)

Pleioblastus humilis var. Pumilus is a dinky mini-bamboo that spreads rapidly. Its height - or rather, lack of it - makes it ideal for small gardens where some moisture can be assured (20cm)

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