Lead the sway: Put your pampas prejudice behind you

Nothing becomes a winter garden like a row of tall grasses bending in the breeze, says Emma Townshend
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The Independent Online

There's a lot looking good in gardens at the moment, but nothing is so pleasing to my eye as the tall grasses, moving in the wind, lit by the low sun. That bleached look speaks of the end of summer as a glamorous process, not something tatty and fading. Think Marianne Faithfull rather than Norma Desmond and you're on the right track. With creamy-white tassels and pinky-grey tails, the restrained palette would satisfy the most dedicated minimalist, and furrowed by a strong breeze, the grasses move with an extraordinary beauty that illuminates a November day.

Apart from all that glamour, grasses are tough, too – no wonder when you consider that even the tallest varieties are relatives of the stuff they make football pitches from. If your prejudices against that favourite from the 1970s, pampas grass, don't allow you to adore its striking shape, try calling it by its botanical name, Cortaderia. There, does that feel any better?

But even if you maintain that pampas grass is beyond the pale, you don't have to give up on the whole group. There are the soft little bunny tails of Lagurus ovatus to satisfy the most tasteful of shoppers, or the tiny purply-green beads of "Quaking Grass", Briza media, that shiver when the wind runs through it. And the very grey grasses such as Carex "Grayassina" and Juncus "Elk Blue" look fantastically austere in containers and running over the side of window boxes.

You don't have to plant grass with other grasses, either. Verbena bonariensis has been looking fantastic growing through a rosy-toned Pennisetum all summer at Kew. And just yesterday I saw an eye-popping combination of Miscanthus "Krater", with its arching pinky seedheads, and Ricinus communis, with its dark burgundy leaves and great big red pom-pom fruits .

The experts you need to speak to on the subject are Knoll Gardens, in Wimborne, Dorset, a small company headed by passionate grass enthusiast Neil Lucas. Knoll has made seven consecutive gold-medal-winning displays at Chelsea since 2002, and gives masterclasses on site for gardeners.

One thing he will be pointing out is how easy grasses are, once planted in the right position. No feeding and, once established, not much watering either. Their main requirement is an annual shearing (some people swear by burning back large stands of grass by starting a fire right in the centre, but I can't recommend that, simply on health and safety grounds). It's best to time the haircut for very early spring, as after a windy winter they will be looking their worst. But for the moment, enjoy the display.

For information on Lucas's masterclasses, visit www.knollgardens.co.uk

Back to grass roots: Four that will stand tall

Miscanthus 'Cosmopolitan'

A version of this wonderful tall grass with intensely smart green-and- white-striped leaves, adding a sense of refined order to the back of untidy flowerbeds. £9.50, www.burncoose.co.uk

Cortaderia 'Candy Floss'

Pampas grass now comes in a fabulous greyish pink. £9, www.knollgardens.co.uk

Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'

An incredibly strong, vertical accent plant, with tall green stems fading to straw-coloured feathers as autumn progresses. £6.99, www.crocus.co.uk

Stipa tenuissima

Cheap as chips, and as stylish as good Danish furniture. Clean wheaten tufts to provide that calming feeling. £4.50, www.knollgardens.co.uk