Designing with Grasses

I have been increasingly interested in using grasses in the garden but have been slightly nervous  as they are an unknown medium for me and I have seen many badly planted grass borders/gardens so when Designing with Grasses by Neil Lucas plopped through the letterbox I was very pleased.

Neil is the owner of Knoll Gardens nursery in Dorset and is a well-respected ornamental grass specialist and it shows from his book.  It has taken me quite a while to read this book as it isn’t one you would want to skim given the amount of information it contains.  There is hardly a wasted sentence.  I have had to take it in stages as I needed time to digest all the new information and ideas I have garnered.

The book opens with Lucas describing how he discovered the whole concept of growing the right plant in the right place having failed to keep rhododendrons growing on the sandy soil at his Dorset nursery!  He has obviously been on quite a journey and now believes deeply that there are more environmental and sustainable ways to garden particularly through the use of what he calls ‘functional horticulture’: rain gardens, roof gardens, native plants etc.  In particular a recurring call to arms through the book is need to review our use of clipped and manicured lawns which are resource intensive and in Lucas’s view a “green desert”.  He says that “many unsatisfactory lawns probably linger today simply because their owners are unaware of the alternative possibilities.” The book expands upon this premise asking readers to consider reducing if not removing their lawns in favour of something more interesting, more environmentally friendly and adopt the grassland principle where grasses comprise 20-80% of plants in a private garden.  I have been completely captivated by this idea and keep looking at my tired weedy mossy excuse of a lawn and wondering what the garden would be like if I just dug it up.  I have a sloping garden so mowing it is hard work another reason to say ‘Bye bye lawn’.

But the book doesn’t just focus on replacing the lawn with grasses it looks at a variety of different habits and discusses what grasses, or their near relatives would work.  I was pleased to see dry shade and boggy ground covered (as well as drought situations and pot growing) as I struggle with both in my garden and yes there are grasses that would do the job and more importantly grasses that I like the look of and can see working in those difficult locations.

The book is full of photographs to illustrate the points Lucas makes.  I think they are predominantly from locations in the US but then this is because they have the prairies and also use grasses on a large-scale in municipal planting more than we do here in the UK.  There are UK examples and Lucas’s own garden at Knoll, as well as Beth Chatto’s garden feature a lot.  He is also very good at explaining that whilst a plant would do well in a damp environment in California say, the same plant would not do so well in a damp environment in the UK.

Having been completely inspired to bring more grasses into my garden and with lots of ideas of how to do this I was pleased to see a section near the back on maintaining the plants.  I have already learnt that Stipas do not like to be lifted to be divided and you have to saw off a bit in situ – and no it isn’t that easy I can assure you.  There is then a directory of grasses which is fascinating as the wealth of plants available is mind-blowing.

Lucas’s philosophy accords very well with a mindset I have been slowly developing.  I have said before I don’t like the formality of clipped hedges and parterres and prefer winter interest from bark and also grasses.  As Lucas says “the lithe, flexing almost continuous  motion and rustling sounds….is a prime attribute of the grass family.” Give me that any day over the rigidity and solemnity of clipped box and yew.

I could go on forever with everything I have learned from this book and the ideas it has prompted but instead I would urge you if you are only marginally interested in using grasses in your garden to have a read of Lucas’s book – I don’t think you will be disappointed.

15 Comments on “Designing with Grasses

  1. It’s good to hear you sound so enthusiastic Helen. Grasses are my favourite group of plants in my garden. I haven’t had any difficulty dividing Stipas but then they seed so prolifically in my garden that I can just pull up old-looking plants. They look good for almost all the year; in all lights and yes, they sound good too.
    I’ve just found and sowed 5 packets of grass seeds that I bought from Knoll Gardens at Chelsea a couple of years ago. I’ll look foward to seeing this book and maybe buying it. Christina

  2. An enviable book to have Helen..from the interviews I have seen of Neil Lucas he always seems to have a lot of common-sense…and I agree with Christina that most stipas self-sow easily..good review..

  3. The book sounds great, and the grasses look beautiful. I have a few quite neglected plants dotted around the garden that I need to pay more attention off and add to.

  4. Thank you for the excellent review. Sounds very worth reading. I will look it up.

    We have turfed slopes surrounding our yard that I have been trying to move to ground cover. It has been a slow process because it is difficult to grow new plants on such a steep, easily eroded area. Even the area between the sidewalk & road is so much better planted than turfed. It becomes an extension of the garden/property that way.


  5. Sounds like a great book, he certainly knows his stuff, but that doesn’t always get combined with the ability to communicate it. I like the sound of his philosophy, its one I’d like to convert FIL to, but he does like his lawn, so we may have to compromise when we eventually move. Can’t wait to see what you end up doing in your own garden Helen – lose the lawn! Go on, you know it makes sense! Less work, more plants 😉

  6. Helen, thank you for alerting me to Neil’s new book. He has done wonders at educating the world about the joy of growing grasses.
    I too, love grasses and both collect them and use them widely in my gardens. I know you will never turn back now. Wait until you correctly plant a Stipa gigantea, carefully back-lit with evening sun and see how the awns shimmer and reflect light….

  7. Found out yesterday Neil Lucas will be at Malvern Spring Show 🙂

    Haven’t received my copy, so I can’t compare notes with you, nor can you laugh at my total conversion to grasses yet!

  8. Christina – so far despite wonderful seedheads the Stipa havent self-sown in my garden, maybe the soil doesnt get warm enough here in the damp Midlands!!

    Wife Mother gardener – the book covers erosion as well and how grasses are very good for stablising the soil. Might be worth a look at.

    Janet – I will be losing some of the lawn just need to visualise it in my head and find the energy to lift the existing lawn!

    Chris – I have a stipa gigantica which I inadvertently planted in just the right place so it is lit up by the autumn sun in the evening and looks stunning

  9. I think it is great that Neil has written this book. A lot of grass books that I have looked at have an American slant, with plants that are tricky to find in this country.

    I have enjoyed reading your informative review Helen and have looked at the book more on line – this is one that will go onto my “must get” list.

  10. I was keen to read this book as it is the first book on ornamental grasses written by a european for some years. The excellent encyclopedias on grasses by Rich Darke and by John Greenlee are best for americans as they contain too many plants that will not succeed in our temperate climate. Neil’s book is excellent and the text intelligent and informed, but the emphasis is still rather aimed at the american market – not surprising as the publisher is Timber Press. That said, he does make it clear which plants are not appropriate for your UK climate.
    I would have liked to see more photographs of grasses in combination with other plants which is the best way to use them, however the text fully explores the possibilities.
    For an up-to-date catalogue of good garden cultivars the directory at the end is well worth having, but I would have liked some sort of symbol system to sort out those included because they are useful in habitat reclamation as opposed to being good home garden grasses.

  11. Spookily Helen, my first ‘grasses’ book is one of Michael’s. I agree that it’s great to see grasses integrated with a variety of plants and I like to see images of that 🙂

    Great review, Helen. It’s good to hear that Neil has considered availability and reliability of plants growing here in the UK. I liked the comments about the mossy lawns (hand’s up) however my thoughts are that you need open spaces in gardens as a contrast to the ones that you can overfill with grasses and other plants. Just cut back my mature Stipa last week – probably should have divided it 🙂

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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