A Garden in Umbria

Design - Blowing in the wind - November 2017

A plant, by its very definition, is rooted to the spot and cannot move. Grasses, though, have lightness and pliability that allows them to pick up a passing breeze and dance in the evening sunlight. Ornamental grasses can bring ‘movement’ into the garden, either in large groups that ripple in the wind or interwoven with other slender-stemmed plants like Verbena bonariense and Alliums.

Piet Oudorf made grasses fashionable with his iconic ‘prairie style’ garden designs. However not all grasses are drought resistant, which is strange considering many of them come from the prairies of North America.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ frosted in winter

Leave grasses untrimmed right through the winter: they will add their distinctive silhouettes to the winter garden and sparkle when touched by frost and snow.

In early spring cut back deciduous grasses with tall flower stems such as Miscanthus or Panicum just as the new growth is starting to come through: be careful to only cut dead old stems not into the green shoots. Evergreen clump forming grasses like Stipa and Poa must not be cut at all: just comb or tease out any dead stems with your fingers (wear gloves!).

Some varieties of grasses that are more resistant to hot dry summers include:

Stipa tenuissima

Stipa tenuissima, the ‘bad hair day’ grass, is easy to establish and often self-seeds too. It is around 40cm tall and mixes nicely with bulbs – tulbaghia, allium drumsticks or gladiolus. Also Stipa capillata is very elegant but perhaps not quite so robust.

Stipa gigantea

Its taller cousin Stipa gigantea reaches an impressive 2m and is a great plant for the back of the border.

Stipa pulcherrima on Mount Parnassos (Photo Lefteris Daryotis)

Stipa pulcherrima grows wild on Mount Parnassos in Greece - the fabled ‘grass of Parnassos’ of school textbook fame.

Poa labillardieri on a frosty day

Poa labillardieri makes a ‘fountain’ of softly arching stems at about 60cm tall and can tolerate clay soil. The form of the plant mimics the reeds in the pond. It is native to Australia but don’t let that put you off.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yaku Jima’ in autumn

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ has elegant seed heads on top of a 1.50m stem which lend an atmospheric profile when touched by autumn sunlight. The variety Yaku Jima’is a little shorter and more resistant to drought.

Festuca glauca makes a steely blue ground cover.

Leymus arenarius has broad bladed blue leaves which give a striking profile, reaching 80cm.

Lygeum spartum

Lygeum spartum is extremely resistant to drought and will tolerate clay soils. Its fascination is in its unusual seed heads which resemble little white fluffy birds.

The photo at the top of this page shows Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ in autumn sunlight

Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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