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Grasses with Grace

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Sue Beesley Sue Beesley | 17:00 UK time, Friday, 22 July 2011

I have a new love. Like all the newly smitten, I am just a little bit obsessed with summer flowering grasses. Yes, I know they are not the most obvious objects of desire, but let me explain. Until a few years ago, I thought of ornamental grasses as large feature plants for autumn interest.

In East Sussex where I grew up, fluffy plumes of Pampas grasses punctuated nearby front gardens in October. And when I lived in Surrey for a few years in my twenties, some of the larger gardens sported muscular clumps of Miscanthus, their fat beige flower heads arching over tall hedges into November and beyond.

Stipa gigantea and Stipa tenuissima were familiar exceptions, both in flower by July, but somehow I still hadn’t really grasped just how many gorgeous grasses are at their best in mid-summer and how fabulous they look when combined with perennials.

All that changed when I first saw a fluffy Deschampsia in full flower in late June, partnered with a rather stiff, pinkish Kniphofia. The soft, gauzy panicles of the grass filled the air spaces between the flowers, added some much needed movement, and were still there sparkling in the frost seven months later, long after the pokers had died back. I adored it.

Grasses with Grace Show Garden at RHS Show Tatton Park

Grasses with Grace Show Garden at RHS Show Tatton Park

From that moment on, I began to see summer flowering grasses everywhere and the idea for ‘Grasses with Grace’ as a show garden was born.

Grasses with Grace sculpture by Juliet Scott

The "sculpture was loaned to me by Hampshire sculptor, Juliet Scott"

Grace describes both the graceful habits of the grasses and a sculpture, loaned to me by Hampshire sculptor, Juliet Scott, which acts as the focal point for the garden. I love the way that grasses soften the solid, static patches of perennials, adding a gentle veiling effect and muting the stronger colours.

With hundreds of varieties to choose from, I limited my selection for the show garden to reliably hardy plants which don’t self-seed excessively and which are easy to combine with perennials in a garden border.

Top of the list was Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. It makes neat vertical clumps with soft purple plumes, turning blonde in winter and stands tall and proud until March.

The Deschampsia that first caught my eye comes in many forms - ‘Goldschleier’ is a bright, upright gold, and I’ve teamed this with Achillea ‘Terracotta’ and my favourite Hemerocallis, ‘Corky’.

For something a little more refined, I picked Eragrostis curvula, or African Lovegrass. It’s a sexy name whichever version you choose to use and is as lovely as it sounds, an elegant, arching grass with fine, nearly black, beady heads which I’ve threaded through Actea simplex ‘Brunette’ and Astrantia ‘Gill Richardson’ for a bit of smoke tinted drama.

In the shady area, under the trees, Japanese flowing grass, Hakonechloa macra makes lovely arching mounds of strappy bright green leaves – the perfect partner for hostas. And for height, I picked a fine Molinia ‘Edith Dudszus’, with slim, charcoal black flower spikes which hover above a froth of white Thalictrums.

But my favourite combination includes a grass that I’ve grown from seed. Stipa capillata ‘Lace Veil’, has soft greenish flower heads in summer and perfectly complements a swathe of utterly gorgeous Echinacea ‘Green Envy’. You may not be convinced, but I’m quite smitten. And if you’re still not sure, come and see!

Sue Beasley's Grasses with Grace was awarded Gold at this year's RHS Show Tatton Park.

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