Grasses – the current state of play

_DSC8224The introduction of ornamental grasses into planting plans was one of the most significant changes to occur within garden design in the past twenty years. Through their inclusion amidst an evolving planting pallet of perennials, contemporary gardens took on a naturalistic feel, far removed from the stiff block plantings of traditional herbaceous borders; grasses introduced an informal air with strong associations with wild nature.

grass_scan105The distinctive characteristics that set grasses apart from the other plants that we grow in our gardens results in them having a powerful influence wherever they are used and this brings with it both advantages and dangers. Their presence within your planting schemes will never go unnoticed and invariably leads to powerful associations and significant contrasts.

grass_scan114Most of us associate grasses with the countryside and therefore their presence in our planting schemes triggers a sense of informality. This suggests that to use grasses in a formal arrangement is going against their true character and will lead to problems. As a rule this is true, but it can also be a rule to break when exploiting their other qualities of distinctive forms, textures and foliage colours.

Designing with grasses requires an ability to balance these somewhat conflicting characteristics and being aware that every single grass in your designs must be placed with extreme care.

_DSC7464From a position of total obscurity in the 1980s to their heyday as the most trendy plants in the 1990s grasses are now finding their rightful place in our planting designs. Used with sensitivity they can be used to weave together mixed perennial planting schemes into evocative perennial meadows, but often just a few plants in a scheme will be enough to develop the appropriate emotional response.

King_110818_157Contrasts in planting design are fundamental, but need balancing with areas of harmony. When grasses are planted in masses or used as the dominant theme in a mixed planting scheme, their characteristic shapes introduce zones of harmony. Alternatively single specimens of bold grasses can stand out within their settings making striking contrasts with any broad leaved plants nearby.

_DSC5897One mistake too often seen is a designer lining up bold upright grasses to form barriers in their landscapes. When deliberate such arrangements make bold design statements, but without care can also introduce disruptive elements that divide up garden space that do not call for such organisation.

King_110712_038Many ornamental grasses both short and tall are capable of bringing impact to contemporary planting schemes and learning how best to use them in a variety of different situations and for different reasons needs to be mastered by both keen gardeners and professional garden designers in equal measure.

My online gardening courses at MyGardenSchool offer students the opportunity to work directly with me in discovering the secrets of gardening with grasses. The four video lectures are followed by weekly assignments that give us the opportunity to discuss your own projects and address some interesting design challenges. In this way, by tackling real assignments you will learn far more than simply reading a book. My last online horticultural course for this summer begins on June 7. Since grasses should not be divided or planted in the autumn or winter now is perhaps the time to introduce them into your own planting schemes.

Posted in Meadows 101, Ornamental Grasses | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Chelsea Show Gardens – teach us nothing

I have just finished watching the BBC’s daily reports on the Chelsea Flower Show 2014 and I must say that the new presenter, Monty Don, has significantly improved the standard of debate and analysis of the various plants and gardens featured.

2_thumbThe one interview he conducted with Thomas Heatherwick really struck home with me when they discussed the need to curate the show garden exhibits. The point Thomas Heatherwick made was that individually they had merit but together they offered no message or theme.

DSC_0173_thumbI have visited the Chelsea Flower Show on and off for more than thirty years and can hardly remember more than a handful of gardens that were shown. Because the gardens are the product of a single designer working with their sponsor they are all different; the variety this produces is entertaining, but as isolated examples of individual expression they are quickly forgotten by we onlookers.


A curated exhibition investigates a theme and shows how different artists interpret it. If instead of a free for all, the Royal Horticultural Society were to choose a tangible theme for each show, the show gardens could display a range of different approaches to the challenge and together provide a platform for informed debate and analysis.

By using the show gardens in this way the RHS could inform and inspire both designers and visitors and thereby move the possibilities offered by garden design forward. At the moment every designer needs to invent a theme for themselves upon which to base their design, but as we often see, the best designs come about when a challenge or restraint is imposed to which the designer must respond.

The gardens made for Chelsea are five day wonders with little afterlife. If instead they all conformed to a given theme, they could come together, perhaps in the form of a book, that would analyse the design challenge and show how different designers had responded to it. But for this to work the annual themes would need to be tangible and practical rather than intellectual and obscure: water and fire, contemporary formality, naturalism, four season planting schemes, commercial front gardens, outdoor living, roof gardens, vertical gardening etc..

At the moment it seems that sponsors determine what we see at the Chelsea Flower Show; isn’t it time that the RHS took control and allowed their show gardens to move forward the boundaries surrounding gardens and garden design?

Thank you to MyGardenSchool for the use of the photos in this post. And if you would like to see more about this year’s Chelsea be sure to check out their own blog posts here.

Posted in Art in the garden | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Colours Gather Strength in the Perennial Meadows Garden

In my previous post I celebrate the colour green; now others are challenging its supremacy.

Geum and Geranium King_140503_12751 King_140503_12811

Here and there shrubs now rise above my perennial meadows bringing exciting new forms and contrasts to the looser plant material that surrounds them.

King_140503_12823 King_140503_12871

Complementary plants form part of my perennial meadow planting schemes and are there to serve an number of important functions; one of these is Geranium tuberosum which covers the ground in early spring with low, finely divided foliage and then a few weeks later adds a wash of blue to the borders. It vanishes shortly after flowering, but by then it has done its job by extending the border’s season of interest. In summer this border will be an oasis of green amidst the surrounding colours of the rest of the garden. At ground level hostas and epimediums will eventually cover the surface and above them will float the flower heads of tall-growing Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea grasses.

King_140503_12949 King_140505_12989 King_140505_12997

Euphorbia palustris makes a bold contribution and creates the perfect setting for the alliums which have seeded themselves throughout this long established border. My neighbour’s Tamarix shrub makes a short but welcome background to the composition.

Posted in Garden moods | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Shades of Green

In Perennial Meadows

Greens in The Perennial Meadows Garden

The mild winter and spring in the Netherlands has triggered everything into growth.

The overwhelming colour is green even though a lot is actually in flower.

Green in its many shades is at the heart of all garden planting. Celebrate it:

King_140324_11843King_140324_11811King_140324_11803King_140324_11947King_140324_12047 King_140324_11937 King_140324_11935 King_140324_11913 King_140324_11897 King_140324_11891 King_140324_11881 King_140324_11879 King_140324_11857 King_140324_11851 King_140324_11849 King_140324_11845 King_140324_11843 King_140324_11839 King_140324_11837 King_140324_11835 King_140324_11833 King_140324_11829 King_140324_11827King_140324_11825

Posted in Garden moods | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Combining Perennial Meadows and Shrub Feature Borders

I have been telling everyone about Pachyphragma macrophyllum over many years, but still it is a little known ground cover perennial.

Perennial Meadow and Shrub FeatureShrub feature borders combine special shrubs with other plants to create bold units of planting that play a role in the design and organisation of garden landscapes. In this square feature border shrubs including spring flowering Corylopsis spicata and the tree-like and later flowering Chionanthus virginicus rise out of a carpet of perennials.

In spring the perennial meadow that forms the ground covering layer of this shrub feature border is dominated by one of the most effective spring flowering perennials – white flowered Pachyphragman macrophyllum. This meadow planting is triggered into life in late winter when snowdrops and hellebores flower. The pachyphragman flowers for more than an month in spring and supports a long display of various daffodils, species Narcissus, and late spring flowering tulips.

This spring display is made possible by the very late appearance of leaves on the Chionanthus virginicus towering above. In summer the shrub feature is dominated by woodland grasses and geraniums, but gains late summer impact with the flowering of wild asters. Finally, the leaves of the shrubs turn clear yellow for a long, late autumnal finale.

Because the perennial meadow includes epimediums, hellebores and grass-like Luzula species along side the pachyphragma, this border remains clothed with evergreen foliage all year round that creates a platform for the various shrubs that grow through and above it. The secret to success is combining compatible plants. The perennials are all shade and drought tolerant which is essential when growing them within the root zone of these bold shrubs.

Pachyphragma seeds itself non-aggressively around the nearby areas of the garden and has become one of my favourite hardy perennials. To read more about this plant see my earlier post here.

Posted in Shrubs | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment