The beauty of frost-rimed plants. The joy of dead stems. The drama of seedheads. What are we talking about? Grasses, of course. And in my experience it's lies, lies, lies. We've all seen those dreamy, backlit images of prairie plantings at dawn: swathes of miscanthus, panicles of oaty stuff, nature re-arranged into tidy patches of bronze and buttermilk, biscuit and tallow. For five long seasons I've waited to be seduced. The reality? Flowering stems that collapse before August is out and not a touch of that riming frost. There's nothing left to rime, except a soggy heap of half-dead foliage, a favourite gathering place for slugs the size of tortoises.
You can't know a plant until you've grown it, so when we first came to our new place, I laid out a curving slope on the bank for grasses. With a view sailing out over the valley to pastures beyond, there was a chance (I thought) of making the connection between garden and setting that country gardens need. Grasses would be the key component.
In my head, I had already lined up a list of possibilities. I knew that the list would never include miscanthus or Stipa tenuissima, although they are two of the most widely planted grasses in British gardens. I've tried to like miscanthus – various miscanthus. I've approached them head on, crept up to them sideways, played the game of grandmother's footsteps with them – suddenly spinning round in the hope of catching them in a new light. They have had every chance to envelop me with gratitude for their beauty in the way that Euphorbia stygiana does, every time I look at it. They failed. Miscanthus are stiff, lumpen creatures, too upright, too solid, sprouting their late summer plumes tightly, unwillingly, like a miser being forced to spend money. There is no joy there. No joy at all.
Stipa tenuissima at least has a tactile beauty. Of all grasses, it is the one that, unconsciously almost, people reach out to touch. Your fingers run through it easily and it feels as delightful as trailing your hand through water. But it never has A Moment. It always looks the same. Half dead. And it is strangely sheaf-like. Each clump bends in a particular direction, with no feeling for what its neighbours are doing. So a swathe of them (we are told we must always plant grasses in swathes of a single kind) looks like an argument, each stipa on non-speakers with the next.
I liked what I'd seen of pennisetum, especially the dark-flowering kinds such as P. alopecuroides 'Black Beauty' and P. setaceum 'Rubrum'. But pennisetums have the reputation of being miffy plants, short-lived even in perfect conditions and not totally hardy. The last two winters have taught us to be careful about choosing plants that don't relish long periods in temperatures below -5C. So although I've admired pennisetums, I've never actually bought one.
Instead, I bought the early-flowering sedge, Carex elata, Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' and Deschampsia cespitosa 'Bronzeschlier', seven plants of each (it's a big bed). I've never acquired so many plants at once. It made me feel quite drunk. Professionals do it all the time, of course, and wouldn't dream of planting a bed in the piecemeal fashion we amateurs take for granted – we don't usually have the money to do it any other way.
The grasses were the first things I put in this new space, and for the first time in my gardening life, I felt I had a plan. Surrounded by an unusually large
amount of bare ground, I arranged the plants in three separate swathes, with plenty of space between the different kinds. Since that beginning, I've gradually filled in with dark-leaved Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing', some big groups of Spuria iris (as much for their fine, tall foliage as for their flowers), deep blue monkshood, angelica and the blue, late-flowering geranium 'Rozanne'.
Some plants brought themselves in: the silvery thistle (Eryngium giganteum) called 'Miss Willmott's Ghost', Euphorbia oblongata, a short-lived perennial, and Verbena bonariensis which always grows better where it puts itself, rather than in carefully prepared billets. All of these stayed, because they fitted in, though I thin them out every year.
By year two, I realised that seven carex was too many and removed four. That made room for the Euphorbia stygiana, which has now become the star plant in this part of the garden. By year three I was tired of cursing the calamagrostis, whose narrow, mean-spirited plumes collapsed all over the box hedge and got in the way of the lilies. There's meant to be a moment when the panicles open up, but it must have happened the weekend I went away. As I chucked the whole lot on the bonfire, I felt a great heaviness lift from my soul.
I filled the space with masses of Lilium leichtlinii I'd grown from seed. They're flowering now, fantastically handsome creatures with dark stems and hanging, reflexed flowers of a rich, saturated yellow, spotted with dark brown. Each flower (there can be 20 on a stem) is held out on a long stalk, so the head builds up to a splendid pyramid of flower, which lasts for weeks. The lilies are the second best thing in the bed.
There was a moment, before the flower stems started collapsing, when the deschampsia looked quite good with the lilies. That earnt them their place. But when I started cleaning up the clumps in the approved manner, combing my fingers through the foliage, two of them came away in my hands. They'd rotted off, though had not yet shown signs of being dead. I filled the spaces with Nectaroscordum siculum whose seedheads effortlessly provide all those delights that grasses are supposed to give, but don't. Now I'm planning a putsch and have been busy painting my revolutionary banner. 'Down With Grasses' it says.Reuse content