The 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.
The 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.
Most 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.
From 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.
Contrasts 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.
One 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.
Many 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.