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Success with grasses is spectacular yet elusive

by Anna Pavord

Published 02/05/2015

Beatuiful Stems: Elusive Stipa Gigantea
Beatuiful Stems: Elusive Stipa Gigantea

The messy ruff of dead growth around Deschampsia cespitosa 'Bronzeschleier' (it's a grass - a favourite among garden designers) has annoyed me all winter, but when I leaned forward recently to tug it away, the whole thing came away in my hand. "Result," I thought joyfully and lobbed the entire hideous clump on to the compost heap. Ants had for some time been building a nest in the grass - they often do - and had completely separated it from the ground.

Determined to understand the appeal of grasses, I had included several clumps of the deschampsia, along with Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' and a golden-leaved sedge in a new bed I planted soon after we came here. The wretched things have had 10 years to tell me why I should love them. They have failed. Totally. Actually the 'Karl Foerster' only lasted five years. I couldn't stand it any longer. I waited and waited for the frost-rimed seed heads and all those other attributes that grasses are given. But I waited in vain.

The frost rimes other things in the garden most beautifully, but it never got a chance with the grass stems. They collapsed into sodden heaps before the frosts even started, lying in wet, hideous lumps all over long-suffering neighbours such as Geranium 'Orion' and purple Angelica gigas.

The irony is that I thought more about the planting of this bed than I did about any other part of the garden and it has been the least successful. I bought five plants of each of the three grasses and set them in what I hoped might be the "drifts" you keep reading about. I even made a plan of how the bed might be set out. I added the pretty purple-leaved cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing', together with the angelica I've already mentioned. I put in a good clump of a beautiful yellow spuria iris called 'Archie Owen', with tall, clean, sword-leaves. The spurias are good mixers, unlike the earlier-flowering bearded iris.

I used a deep-blue Siberian iris called 'Mountain Lake' and, for late-summer effect, one of my favourite monkshoods, Aconitum 'Bressingham Spire'. A useful, long-flowering, though short-lived spurge (Euphorbia oblongata) had already seeded itself into the bed and to give it company in the spring, I added patches of an enchanting ivory-coloured narcissus called 'Petrel' which has several reflexed flowers on each stem.

But at the time I planted the grass-dominated border, I hadn't caught the magnolia bug. They are now the dominant features of the patch. The two iris still survive there and the anthriscus seeds itself about in different places each year, but never gets in the way. I've added lilies and nerines and through spring, the place is bright with self-seeded primroses and forget-me-nots, hyacinths and crocus.

The sedge survives, but a strange thing is happening to it. It is the earliest of the grasses to flower, with odd brown seed heads like furry caterpillars at the end of its stems. But I think they must be seeding themselves into the clump, because the foliage, previously a good bright gold, is now interspersed with spikes of green. I have brindled carex with gold and green spikes of leaf all mixed up in the same clump. It's not a good look. So I think I have the perfect excuse to do some more de-grassing in the border.

Deschampsia cespitosa 'Bronzeschleier' is a grass favourite among garden designers Deschampsia cespitosa 'Bronzeschleier' is a grass favourite among garden designers (Rex)

I gave the carex an experimental kick when I was working through the border recently, weeding, tickling up the soil, cutting out a few dead stems of spurge - in short, doing all the things that a gardener likes to do now that the new season is well under way. But unfortunately it didn't respond as helpfully as the calamagrostis did, and remained securely fixed to its station. I've been temporarily diverted by the need to shift some self-seeded wild primroses from among a spread of less vigorous Barnhaven primulas of a gorgeous blue. So for the moment, the carex lives on.

Meanwhile, I've been raising annuals to fill in the gaps where the grasses were. I was thinking of the stands of monkshood and wondering what might look good with that superb saturated blue. The Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch') is what I hope might be the answer - tall (anything from 4ft upwards) and of an uncompromisingly brilliant orange. Despite its common name it's not at all like a sunflower, more like a single zinnia, but once it gets going, it flowers non-stop until it gets frosted. The stems are thick and robust so you don't have to stake. It's a half-hardy annual, easy, though not quick from seed. Last year I sowed it on 6 April and it was in bloom by mid-July.

I've also added nectaroscordum, bulbs which used to be called alliums. They grow in the same kind of way, with stems up to 30in topped by a tall, pointed bud, wrapped in a papery sheath. This breaks open into a drooping head of up to 30 flowers, striped in cream and maroon..

The irony of the whole grass episode is that there is one, Stipa gigantea, that I absolutely adore. It grows like a clump of wild oats, rising and spreading its stems in a great arc, particularly beautiful when seen against the light. The stems can be up to 8ft tall, purplish-green when they first emerge, but bleaching to a soft straw colour as they ripen. Three times I have planted it. Three times it has died. And, as a gardening friend reminded me, it's unwise to murder a plant more than three times in succession. But still, it haunts me.

Belfast Telegraph

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