Gardening: Splendour of the grass: PART TWO

In the second extract from his book 'Garden Magic', Nigel Colborn shows how to compose a garden around the delicate outlines and swaying fluidity of ornamental grass
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The Independent Culture
Grasses have a language of their own. Each leaf etches an individual line. Their flower stems erupt and cascade in shape-shifting compositions that move in the slightest breeze. Even the sound of grasses is distinctive - a whisper in light winds, sighing and hissing like animate beings in more gusty weather. Throughout the year, they make wonderful subjects for both lawns and as background plants.

Grasses can look as enticing in autumn, when their foliage begins to die, as in summer when they are still in the green. Furthermore, drying tussocks of grass provide a winter haven for wildlife, and also help to protect marginally hardy grasses such as pennisetum from frost damage. Resist the temptation, therefore, to cut them back or to remove dead flower stems.

Spring is the ideal time to divide and plant grasses, but the seeds of many can be sown in the autumn and, since they perform best on well-dug, enriched soil, this is a good time of year to prepare the ground and dress it with compost or well-rotted manure. Autumn is the best time to plant the companion plants in the scheme here, giving them time to establish so that when the young grasses are introduced next year, the companions will provide a little protection.

Grasses almost plant themselves. Their natural beauty is striking but, with thoughtful planning, these attributes can be even further enhanced. The use of low-growing, mat-forming plants in this composition has resulted in a low-profile, bronze and silver understory, allowing the grasses to be the star performers. Apart from an unusual but effective background of pines, and a single metal frame, these grasses create the planting's outline and framework. Soft, changeable and impermanent they may be, but they dominate the planting, making every other species subordinate. An advantage to such a planting is that the results are speedy, transforming the area in a single season, specially once the grasses are in flower. This planting relies on large grasses like miscanthus and cortaderia but you could scale down the dimensions by using smaller species, like hakonechloa, molinia or festuca.


Any reasonable soil will suit most grasses, as long as it has been dug over, and (preferably) improved with compost or other organic material. But for the grasses shown right, moist conditions are desirable, and mulching is important for moisture retention. The ground-cover plants will also help to keep in moisture.

Planting Procedure

The concept of tiering - short plants in front, tall at the back - has been all but abandoned here, resulting in a superb sense of drama, with a dominant tall grass in the foreground and smaller plants peeping out from behind. The tallest and strongest-growing species - pennisetum, cortaderia, phormium and miscanthus - are the main anchor plants. To ensure that these get off to a good start, include some bonemeal at planting time. Space the background plants evenly, to encourage them to merge.


One of the real joys of this kind of planting is that you can watch the gradual changes taking place as the seasons pass. The temptation to tidy things up in autumn must therefore be resisted. Early spring will be a better time to work through the bed, getting rid of dead or unsightly material. Even then, it will not be necessary to remove all the previous year's growth. Evergreen species can simply be tidied by pulling away dead foliage. These grasses are all hardy, except for the pennisteum, which is slightly tender and may need winter protection.

All grasses, but especially large, robust species, are hungry feeders, with an almost unlimited response to high-nitrogen fertiliser. You need to exercise caution, however, since overfeeding can have a coarsening effect, the growth becoming so rampant as to threaten the background plants. Flowers look smaller on overfed grasses, and foliage colours may be less interesting, so feed only moderately.


Grasses can become untidy, and many invasive. Those with a creeping rootstock, the miscanthus for example, will need to be kept within bounds. When a tussock-forming grass has become old and unthrifty, replace it with a younger plant.

Planting Plan



















Anemone x hybrida 'Honorine Jobert'

Artemisia stelleriana

Aster amellus

Cortaderia selloana 'Sunningdale Silver' Helichrysum angustifolum

Miscanthus floridulus

Miscanthus sinensis 'Silberfeder'

Pennisetum alopecuroides

Phormium tenax

Pinus radiata

Rosa glauca

Schizostylis coccinea

Sedum spectabile

Sedum 'Ruby Glow'

Stipa tenuissima


















Chrysanthemum uliginosum

Senecio viravira

A x frikartii 'Monch'

C s 'Pumila'

Lavandula lanata

M sacchariflorus

M s 'Zebrinus'

P villosum

P 'Bronze Baby'

P coulteri

Buddleja 'Lochinch'

S c 'Jennifer'

S telephium

S 'Vera Jameson'

S calamagrostis