Create some drama with ornamental grasses

Outdoor Living


The varieties that grow best in Mayo gardens

Chris Smith

I became interested in growing ornamental grasses after reading an article by a keen gardener – Des Doyle from Kilkenny. He convinced me that planting ornamental grasses was a way of landscaping the garden without a huge amount of work, and they offer a naturalistic, pollinator-friendly approach to gardening.
Ornamental grasses are low maintenance and can give the gardener interest all the year round. They came into their own in the mid 1990s – championed by Piet Oudolf from the Netherlands. First used in France and the Netherlands in public places and in public gardens – they then progressed to private gardens. Most of the grasses we have today are developed since then but its is important to note the work of plant breeders such as Karl Foerster who was breeding perennial grasses in Germany since the 1950s.

Why use grasses?
The reasons to plant grasses in your garden are myriad. They offer an interesting range of colour – grey, fawn, browns. They give structure to a garden in winter, and can look beautiful in frost, mist and fog. They also provide great habitats and resting places for birds and insects. If you have dry or poor soil you can still grow grasses!
Grasses combine beautifully with plants such as heleniums, asters. Grasses have a flexible use – there is a grass for every situation – dry, shade, full sun, semi shade.
Where can I get grasses?, you ask. They are not readily available in Ireland, unfortunately.  Mount Venus in Dublin has a good range, or try mail order. You can grow from seed – sow seeds in spring, which is when established grasses should be divided.
Most grasses need to be cut to the ground early in the season – usually in February. Drainage is important for sun-loving types, so it is important to plant these in well-drained soil. For grasses that need moisture, a good mulch of leaf mold is important. Be aware though, grasses do not like fertiliser and feeding.
I always plant new grasses in autumn or early spring. By early summer they are in leaf and are more difficult to get going properly. The root system is critical, and remember a fibrous root system takes a long time to get going; two- to three-year-old plantings look well.

Varieties for the west
We grow over 40 different varieties of grasses. So far, we have discovered that the ones  that perform the best are cool-season grasses. Most of these like wet conditions, which is why they work here in the west of Ireland.
Some of the cool-season varieties that have performed for us well include Chionochloa Rubra, a big grass that grows to almost two metres and spreads two metres, and three varieties of Deschampsia – Pixie, Gold Tag and Tatra Gold. Some of these grow wild in Ireland and can grow to a height of 60cm.
Karl Foerster is from the Calamagrostis family and grows to a height of two metres. It is a tall and compact grass – it moves elegantly in the wind and tolerates rain better than other varieties in this family.
Carex are low-growing grasses, suitable for the front of a flower bed. Again they thrive in wet conditions and so are well-suited to our climate.
Molinia is another grass that grows well in damp conditions. It is transparent and so therefore it works well with sanguisorba and other perennials and annuals, such as cosmos, and persicaria.
Warm-season grasses that have worked well for us include Miscanthus, Stipa and Pennisetum – they enjoy warm position, plenty of sun and good drainage.
Miscanthus Malepartus grows to two metres and is dramatic-looking from the end of September to Christmas. There are other varieties of Miscanthus that do not grow as tall, such as Little Zebra, which has striped foliage and grows to a height of 70cm. Yakushima dwarf also grows to 70cm.
Stipa Tenuissima grows to 40cm, self seeds but is easily weeded, needs full sun and looks good in the wind. Stipa Gigantea is the most dramatic grass in our garden and stands at over two metres, spreading to a metre and a half. It is a joy for all the senses and one can hear it rustle in the wind and one can see other flowers through it.
I would recommend that gardeners have a go at planting grasses, they really can have a dramatic effect on your garden.

Chris Smith has been running Western Herbs & Veg for more than 30 years, producing organic herbs and vegetables for sale at Westport Country Market. He is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail, a chain of beautiful and unique private gardens that open to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see for more). Each month, an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.