Urban gardener, Cleve West: Pampas yourself

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The Independent Online

Friends who have just finished building a garden in Berrylands, Surrey, are now looking forward to planting. The garden, an exercise in paring down and simplicity, has box and yew stalwarts accentuating the structured minimalism; they are looking for a semi-ordered jumble of grasses, perennials and bulbs to provide some seasonal interest. When my list of suggestions included pampas grass, there were sniggers all round. I started defending this much-maligned South American grass, but the more I tried to justify its inclusion, the louder the laughter until, virtually unable to speak with mirth, they told me that pampas grass carried certain overtones … Call me naïve, but it's the first time I've heard that pampas is generally accepted as a signal for extra marital activities, namely wife-swapping.

Whether this is true or not, I don't know. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt, by someone who hated the grass, to frighten off anyone contemplating using it and so halt its spread across suburbia. It did nothing of the sort - indicating that either no one took any notice and planted it just for its looks, or that word went round in a flash among swinging folk, sparking an enthusiastic upsurge of sales.

Regardless of your sexual proclivity, anyone who has ever grown pampas grass will tell you that, out of all the grasses, it is something of a brute, spreading to a diameter of almost two metres. Those who are beguiled by its evergreen leaves and three-metre-high plumes that last all winter long often fail to make allowances for this and have the unenviable job of having to grub it out when it's impossible to get to the front door without lacerating blades drawing blood from bare flesh.

The plumes themselves are stunning but, on reflection, display the artificiality of a slightly dodgy craft section at a pre-Christmas garden centre, a trait that is perhaps the main reason for their decline in popularity since the Eighties. This is unfortunate, as the grass was never meant to be scrutinised up close. Left to its own devices, any self-respecting pampas would much rather be seen from a distance in drifts on the plains of Patagonia than in the backyards of Berrylands where neat lawns and crazy paving can nullify its potency at a stroke.

Having eulogised enough over Cortaderia selloan, I ignored the ongoing guffaws to explain that I'd had in mind the more graceful C. richardii 'Toe Toe' (more giggles), pronounced "Toy Toy" (now hoots of laughter), a pampas grass from New Zealand. Its nodding, pendant flowers in summer make it altogether more pleasing. Being more a designer than plantsman I rarely play that dangerous game of showing-off with plant names, but by mentioning that this was similar to another member of the Poaceae family, Ampelodesmos mauritanicus (same height but only spreading to just over a metre), I hoped to bore them out of the ensuing hysterics. It worked for a bit but the wisecracks returned (with a touch of indignation thrown in for good measure) when I suggested a smaller variety, C. pumilla.

For those of you who want to ignore the suggestive overtones and bring more pampas into your life, C.' Sunningdale Silver' is a particularly beautiful variety with a thicket of elegant flowers. All pampas grasses are generally unfussy about soil type, so long as it's not too alkaline. Spring is the best time to tidy them up by removing spent flower heads and cutting back foliage. Some people set fire to pampas believing this to be good for them but - aside from the obvious danger to nearby buildings - I'm not so sure about the wisdom of such advice and prefer to just trim them back as hard as is necessary. A dishevelled clump that has lost its form can be grubbed out with a mattock (not as easy as it sounds) and a piece of it re-planted in some fresh soil and compost.

If you like the idea of pampas but are worried about what your neighbours might think, my advice would be to walk your own path and keep everyone guessing. You might even grasp this notion of using plants as subtle signals and extend it to politics, religion, allegiance to a particular football club or gang. Just the thing, perhaps, to add a touch of mystery to our front gardens.