Like most people across the UK I awoke yesterday to a Winter Wonderland. Grateful that I didn’t need to drive anywhere, I layered fleeces over my pyjamas, grabbed my wellies and my camera, and ventured out into the magical hush of fresh snow. There’s nothing quite like the sound of that crunch underfoot. The white blanket covered the fallen leaves I’d failed to clear up and obscured the outlines of plants and trees. I took the obligatory photos of snowy seedheads and half-buried plants, but I was distracted. I’ve spent a lot of time these past few months pondering the future of my Pond Bed. It was first planted up back in Spring 2005. I was entranced by various images of so-called “Prairie Planting”, and was aiming for a naturalistic scheme full of colour and texture. The backbone was a selection of grasses. This was back in the days when I could afford to “buy” a garden, so I had the luxury of pouring over nursery catalogues and websites and ordering mature plants from everywhere from Beth Chatto’s nursery to Knoll Gardens. The result was an expensive dogs breakfast.
In my defence I was completely new to the world of mixed perennial planting, and everything I knew about grasses came from books. Up until then I had majored on shrubs and trees, and had created a backbone of largely evergreen plants that contrasted well and screened the garden. I was confident with shrubs. I’d had a lot of complements about my borders. My first attempts at using grasses however…
The mess pictured above was the Pond Bed in the summer of 2005. Way too many grasses, with way too many different habits and forms, all jostling for position, none looking good. I had a Stipa gigantea (of coursse), Molinia caerulea ‘Moorhexe’, Molinia caerulea spp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’, Molinia c. spp. a. ‘Windspiel’, Miscanthus sinensis ‘China’ (which I have been mis-naming ‘Morning Light’ because I’d lost my notes), Miscanthus s. ‘Malepartus’, Miscanthus s. ‘Kleine Fontäne’, Hakonechloa macra, Poa chaixii, Carex grayi (known as Mace sedge), and finally, Carex muskingumensis (Palm Leaf sedge). Embarrassing but true. I really thought I could cram all those in together, plus some late summer flowering perennials, and that it would look stunning. It didn’t, it was a mess, nothing had enough room, there was nowhere for the eye to settle. More than that, I quickly learnt that the stems of Molinia caerulea spp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ get flattened by the slightest wind and come Autumn just fold over and look messy. So much for the beautiful transparent screen wafting in front of my prized Acer. I’ve been gradually removing grasses from that border ever since, and I’m not done yet.
It’s a case of “less is more”. I want any grass that I keep in this border to make a really strong contribution in its own right, preferably with a long season of interest, and to play well with others. The snow made the garden almost monochrome, so that the essential architecture of the plants was thrown into sharp relief, and it really helped me to decide what I need to do next. I have three Miscanthus remaining, two Miscanthus s. ‘China’ and one Miscanthus s. ‘Kleine Fontäne’.
Miscanthus s. ‘Kleine Fontäne’ has quite an upright habit, and very gracefully cascading long narrow leaves. Growing to around 1.6m, it adds a wonderful structural element to the border, so it stays.
Miscanthus s. ‘China’ has a looser habit than ‘Kleine Fontäne’, slightly shorter in my garden, although this could be because it is less upright. It is the grass I have been mis-naming ‘Morning Light’, and I have taken numerous photographs of the light shining through its silvered seed heads this Autumn. It has glorious Autumn colour, and although it can flop quite badly at times and needs a little tidying up to keep it looking good, it too adds another strong structural element to the garden, particularly from late summer onwards until I finally cut it back in February. I have two of these, making three Miscanthus altogether (the original and very beautiful Miscanthus s. ‘Malepartus’ is now out in the garage bed at the front of the house). The similarity in seed head and foliage is enough to give that natural rhythm you get from planting in threes, but they offer something different to one another too, which is welcome. Which brings me to the Molinia.
The picture above was taken at the end of May this year. You can see the graceful arching leaves of the Miscanthus s. ‘Kleine Fontäne’ to the right behind the foxglove, then moving left the fabulous foliage of Veronicastrum, which I had to move, and then the cluster of three Molinia cearulea ssp. arundinacea ‘Windspiel’. At this point in the season the foliage creates graceful mounds, which echo the Hakonechloa macra which you can just see in the front left. I thought perhaps I needed to reduce the clump to just a single specimen, they need dividing anyway having become congested, but overall, I liked the effect. Fast forward a month.
Seen in black and white, the Hakonechloa macra in the foreground is looking beautiful, forming a neat mound. The Miscanthus still looks elegant with its upright shape and fountain of leaves. The Veronicastrum looks very sad, and then the Molinia. To my eye, just a messy jumble of foliage. I know that if it were just the single specimen I had been planning to leave it would look a lot better, but now it all hangs on the flowers.
At the end of October the Molinia has turned a gorgeous butter yellow colour, and the seedheads form an airy mass at the back of the border. Delightful. The day I took this photo I was questioning the wisdom of thinning the clump it looked so good. Sadly, the flower stems are so slender that they quickly flop, turning a once-graceful group of plants back into a mess. I can’t leave the seedheads through the winter to catch the frost and add structure, because they just lie on the ground looking pathetic, so it adds nothing to the later Autumn and winter garden. More than that, the flowers are rather insignificant until they turn yellow. True, up close they have a lovely purple tinge to them, but overall, they don’t add much. The picture below was taken in late August this year. Again, using black and white to enhance the structural qualities of the planting, I just don’t think the Molinia is earning its keep.
If I get rid of (i.e. find alternative homes for) the Molinia c. spp. a. ‘Windspiel’ I will open up a large space for more perennials. The three Miscanthus will form the main structural interest, while the Hakonechloa and Stipa tenuissima will provide lower growing texture and contrast. In such a small space, limiting the different genus of grass to just three should make the border feel far more coherent. The Molinia simply doesn’t work quite hard enough for me in this space.
I’m grateful that this new blogging habit has made me more ready to get my camera out and document the garden so that I can sit back and analyse what works and what doesn’t. I’m grateful for the way that the monochrome nature of snowfall brought the grasses issue into sharp relief. Most of all, I am grateful that I didn’t give up on trying to garden with grasses. It may have taken me 5 years – although in fairness for two of those I wasn’t here to garden – but so many grasses add so much grace, texture and dynamism to the garden. I wouldn’t be without them.