The last dance - grasses in autumn

by James Alexander-Sinclair

After the recent soft mists and bright days I'm going to formally declare that autumn is with us. Not picture book autumn, with flaring red leaves and dustings of frost, but a sort of pubescent autumn.

Ornamental grass in a borderAfter the recent soft mists and bright days I'm going to formally declare that autumn is with us. Not picture book autumn, with flaring red leaves and dustings of frost, but a sort of pubescent autumn. This is a lovely time of year - everything is so extremely laid back and relaxed.

In this garden there isn't much really urgent work that needs to be done. Many plants have done their bit and are just hanging around waiting for the winter; those that are still flowering do so with an admirable air of insouciance and even the weeds are just loitering about chatting. It has an after-the-party feeling: everybody lolling about on sofas with jackets and shoes off, and previously immaculate hairstyles dishevelled from too much dancing and one glass too many.

Well maybe not everybody - at most parties there are always a few stalwarts who just keep on dancing. In the garden many of these are grasses. They hang about in the background for most of the summer, providing support for the showier plants. They gaze admiringly at roses and bob deferentially to paeonies. One of my favourite combinations is Geum 'Mrs J. Bradshaw' with Stipa tenuissima.

As we reach the dog days the grasses step from the shadows and become stars. I could drone on for ages but I'll give you three good examples and then shut up (I'm sure you have other things to do with your time.)

I grow Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea 'Windspiel' as a hedge - most of the year it is quiet and well behaved but about now it begins to flirt outrageously with Rudbeckia laciniata 'Herbstonne'.

Also worth its salt is the Calmagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster', which I use as a punctuation mark through my borders. It's about the earliest grass to start growing (I cut it to the ground in February and it's growing again within a couple of weeks) and stands there as upright as a guardsman all summer, before turning a gorgeous blonde at this time of year.

Thirdly, Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal'. A much shorter grass (reaching about 1.2m), it has a fantastic blueish leaves the colour of a newly-oiled cutlass - here it is sashaying around Verbena hastata f. 'Rosea'.

I promised to stop after three but it would be remiss of me not to urge you to remember Pennisetum, Anemanthele leesoniana, Deschampsia and, of course, Miscanthus.

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Gardeners' World Web User 03/10/2008 at 17:20

Could anyone tell me when the best time to plant grasses is? I would like to make a new border with grasses and perennials. Also when should I prepare the soil -now before winter sets in or wait until spring. My soil is wet clay and the area is partially shaded so can anyone recommend and sedges or rushes I could plant?

Gardeners' World Web User 06/10/2008 at 20:09

Grasses are looking great right now and I've just planted a few more which I got at the Harrogate show last month.Our garden is very heavy clay with very poor drainage and where other plants have give up grasses have flourished I've not found any thats give up.They're so easy to grow from seed to, whilst on holiday I saw lots of grasses and took a few seeds from each, I now have young grasses that were growing with in 2-3 weeks of planting.With all year round interest they are with out a doubt the easiest plants to grow and you can always find room for one more because they come in such a wide variety of colour and size.

Gardeners' World Web User 09/10/2008 at 20:16

Don't blame you Blodwyn for wanting to beautify your septic tank. If it's a modern bottle-shaped one (klargester or similar) I can't see you'll have a problem - don't think you'll need the plastic. (Don't cover up the inspection covers though as access will be needed every couple of years for emptying.) If it's the ancient concrete sort though, which are often raised 6" above the surrounding land, you'll have to disguise it by planting around it.

Gardeners' World Web User 10/10/2008 at 22:33

My friend recently had a big pile of mulch left by the tree surgeons. Can this be spread over borders straight away, can it do any harm or good. Many thanks for any comments.

Gardeners' World Web User 12/10/2008 at 17:52

Could anyone tell me if you can bring in impatiens for the winter and keep them looking good until time to plant next spring?

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