It is now the right time to plant ornamental grasses in your garden and not in the autumn when nurseries try to promote them. Warm season grasses such as miscanthus, panicum and pennisetum flower in late summer and are at their most attractive then, but to give them the best chance to establish properly and grow they need to be planted in late spring when they are starting into growth. Here in the Netherlands nurseries hold special grass weekends in September and October where customers are seduced into buying plants in full flower. Some of the cold season grasses will benifit from being planted at this time, but the others will simply sit in cold damp soil all winter awaiting appropriate temperatures to start into growth – the chances are that they will die long before they have a chance to become established.
With this in mind it is time to find a good book to help you choose which grasses to use in your gardens and how to use them. Just published by Timber Press is the most up to date – Designing with Grasses by Neil Lucas. I wanted to read this book as soon as it was announced as Neil Lucas is an English nurseryman and I hoped would be writing with experience from a European perspective. Since my own book on gardening with grasses was first published in 1996 I felt that the only good books to appear (and there have been many) came from the USA. John Greenlee’s The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses (1992) had already provided a comprehensive survey of the plants, but was light on design principles. Rick Darke’s – The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses appeared in 1999 and extended the coverage to include restios and bamboos plus many many more grasses that were of limited use in my temperate climate, but it did say more about design.
Since these classics appeared everything that was subsequently published on grasses seemed to simply be a rehash of the same material, sometimes with more dramatic photographs, but rarely with any new information.
In 2007 Rick Darke came out with The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes. This was a revised version of his earlier encyclopedia with even more species and cultivars to consider and a far more comprehensive section on their design potential. For anyone captivated by grasses this is the must have reference work, but from a european perspective it contains many species that are of little use.
So the question was what could Designing with Grasses by Neil Lucas offer that we haven’t already to hand. Well, firstly, it is a much smaller and more focused book than Rick Darke’s enormous encyclopedia and thereby potentially more useful. True to its title the first 170 of the book’s some 250 pages look at grasses and how we might use them both in gardens, on roofs, for erossion control and habitat restorations. The Directory of Grasses that concludes the book is concise, comprehensive and right up to date.
Neil Lucas has clearly thought long and hard about garden design and may even have taken on board some of my own thoughts as there is a great deal of wisdom and good advice presented in a very well written text – often when plant experts write about their subject the quality of their writing and the insight into how best to use their plants is missing – this book is very much the exception; it is a truly enjoyable read.
The chapter on using grasses in shady situation is masterly with nothing being left out that I could possibly think of. Each of these sections in which grasses are recommended for specific tasks ends with a useful list of species which considerably aids the usefulness of the book.
One chapter deals with his design for a grass border which is remarkably similar to my own approach for perennial meadows which is the subject of this web site. In Neil Lucas’ case the percentage of grasses used is much higher than I would choose, but this comes down in part to personal taste and probably also to the fact that this border is for display in has specialized grass nursery.
The selection of grasses in the Directory is good and most importantly very up to date. It is clearly a personal selection which is in many ways more useful than an encyclopedia which aims to include as much as possible. Perhaps it was here that I had most problems with the book, but that is because I already have my favorites. To start with, I would have liked to see more photographs as without them the descriptions make it very difficult to differentiate one recommendation from the other. The section on sedges (Carex) was especially frustrating as they are all quite similar – 36 are listed and only 5 illustrated. The section on miscanthus seemed to contain a few too many of his own introductions, but maybe they are worthwhile as I have yet to grow them – however, how he could leave out Mischanthus sinensis ‘Ghana’ I cannot imagine!
When Piet Oudolf and I were writing our own book the aim was to make gardeners aware of how best to use grasses in gardens. We selected only the very best species and cultivars and wrote extensively about the other perennials which could be evocatively combined with them. Things have now moved on, grasses are established as part of most experienced gardener’s planting pallet, and also the potential of using grasses for erosion control, water management and habitat restorations has become much more important.
The need for advice on the most beautiful and the most functional grasses has extended the range of species that contemporary books need to cover. Unfortunately, Designing with Grasses as with the other encyclopedias, mixes these two groups together, which will make it sometimes difficult for those new to this field to make the most suitable choices for their needs. I would liked to have seen some sort of symbol or coding system used in the Directory to highlight the plants for each different use. That said, the text does make this clear in most cases and as already mentioned there are summary lists provided in the first part of the book.
So to conclude, you should buy Designing with Grasses by Neil Lucus, for the best written and most up to date survey of the subject. For reference you should have Rick Dark’s The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes. And for inspiration of how best to use grasses in your garden borders my old book (which is still in print) Gardening with Grasses. Finally, all the books in the Perennial Meadows series of eBooks offered here make suggestions for using some of the very best grasses for ornamental gardens.
Update: In February 2012 I published GRASS KING a two eBook bundle which is a masterclass in grasses for garden designers.