Gardening: Supergrass

Stately in the shade, dramatic when backlit, and enchanting when covered in glassy beads of rain, grasses not only provide sculptural focal points in the garden, but also make useful windbreaks and ground cover. Sarah Raven reports
GRAHAM GOUGH of Marchants Hardy Plants is passionate about grasses. It was while working with Elizabeth Strangman at the famous Washfield Nursery in Hawkhurst, Kent, that he met the renowned grass experts Ernst Pagels and Piet Oudolf, and started to learn about the subject in depth. Now he has just opened a new nursery specialising in unusual perennials and grasses and stocks a carefully chosen selection from several different families.

He has stipas, with their oat-like flowers; perennial brizas, the quaking grasses, with their delicate, trembling panicles; pennisetums, smaller growing plants with fluffy bottlebrush plumes; and his favourite family, miscanthus, which are big tussocky grasses with foliage similar to a fine bamboo and tall, feathery flower spikes in crimson, cream or brown.

All grasses, he believes, with the possible exception of pampas grass, "are for gardeners who really see things". With light and weather changing from one moment to the next, Gough explains, "You might walk right past a grass one minute, and 10 minutes later find the same plant stopping you in your tracks, with a shaft of sunlight catching the tops of its flowers".

A couple of them, Stipa gigantea and Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus', are particularly worth planting for their flowers and seed heads. The stipa grows to nearly two metres and is topped with airy golden flowers. The seed heads last into autumn, and its evergreen clumps of grey-green leaves provide structure through the winter. It flowers earlier than other grasses, looking its best in early summer.

If you plant them on either side of a path, a metre back in a meandering line, their flower spikes will create a golden aisle for four or five months at a stretch. The flowers of the purple Verbena bonariensis and sky-blue Salvia uliginosa look superb when viewed through this embroidered curtain of grass. Planted together, you will have a brilliant combination of textures and colours, six feet up in the air.

The Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus' is less well-known. In full bloom, this has plumes of dark crimson flowers the length of your forearm, on top of two metre stems. It appears in late spring, with tough reed-like canes that produce a rich cloud of flowers in August. These grow paler as they turn to seed, but the straw-coloured froth will be there well into the new year.

Flowers aside, grasses will contribute a strong structural element to borders for most of the year. Their tussocks look beautiful in the winter, when there is little else around. Scattered around, they provide the perfect punctuation marks for a border, linking one area with the next, and mixing well with almost every other type of plant.

Many grasses begin as vigorous tussocks, forming pillars of thin, strap- like leaves, or billowing out in a rounded bosom from a central point. They form an interesting but pleasingly tidy, dense shape which makes them ideal as corner plants or for prominent places at the front of beds. Most of the smaller miscanthus and pennisetums are good for this, but Miscanthus sinensis 'Yakushima Dwarf' excels. Its thin bright-green leaves form a neat, almost straight-sided column, flaring out at the top like a fluted glass. In the summer it's topped by golden flowers, and it will hold its structure well into the winter. It grows well in pots, too.

Pennisetum orientale is as good, planted to soften the edge of your border in a stripe of fluffy flowers. It forms green sedgey clumps from late spring, producing a billowing mass of dusky-purple, caterpillar-like flowers towards the end of summer.

Grasses can be used for ground cover too. Briza media, an evergreen perennial quaking grass, with neat, green, tufty clumps is perfect for filling in gaps between perennials at the front of a bed. It also grows in shade. It forms cushions of leaves throughout the year, which look good surrounding your spring bulbs, and produces clouds of delicate, droplet-like flowers in late spring and summer. They look even better when covered in glassy beads of rain.

Many grasses are huge, robust plants that make ideal windbreaks and screens. Miscanthus floridulus is one of the chunkiest, and won't run wild or destroy smaller plants in its path. It stands at least three metres high and forms a towering column like bamboo from June until February.

Almost all of these grasses are easy to grow. They're hardy, adaptable plants, and although they do prefer a well-drained site, most thrive in all but the dampest soils. They will grow lush on thin, sandy soils, chalk or heavy clay.

Spring is the time to plant and propagate grasses, but now is the moment to decide which are your favourites. Looking round nurseries and gardens is a good idea. Marchants Hardy Plants (2 Marchants Cottages, Ripe Road, Laughton, East Sussex, BN8 6AJ; catalogue, 4 first-class stamps) have a young but beautifully planted garden showing the varieties they stock. Green Farm Plants (Bentley, Farnham, Surrey, GU10 5LZ, tel 01420 23202) have a garden with planting schemes by Piet Oudolf, including lots of interesting grasses, and Hoecroft Plants (Severals Grange, Holt Road, Wood Norton, Dereham NR20 5BL, tel 01362 684206) have an impressive selection too. They're all worth a visit at this time of year.

This week

2 The Dutch prophet of grasses, Piet Oudolf, has written an excellent book on grasses, 'Gardening with Grasses', Frances Lincoln, pounds 20

2 If your lawns and grass paths need edging, invest in a pair of long-handled shears to give them clean, crisp sides. They will do the job faster than the half-moon tools, and you won't damage your back

2 Late-flowering clematis and the triffid-like vine, Vitis coignetiae, need tying to wire supports at this time of year. They will have grown rapidly in the last few weeks and could break in the autumn winds and rain if you don't control them

2 Magnolia grandiflora

should be covered in flowers at this time of year. The sumptuous waxy flowers and lemony smell make it perfect for cutting and, floated in bowls of water, the flowers will last for over a week