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.