Grasses – The Cinderella Plant of Gardens Growing Decorously

Grasses SY

Clouds wisping over the Wilson Creek Valley in northern New South Wales, where local grasses line the perimeter of a property and blend into a natural mosaic of native vegetation

Grasses are among the most effective of the plants on our planet. When visiting the stunning Wilson Creek Valley in northern New South Wales I was struck by the amazing variety of grasses we have in Australia, which decorously add to the landscape whether in a natural or man made setting.

It was wonderful sitting in the shimmering early morning light contemplating the beauty of the valley, while wispy clouds floated mystically below the tree line.

Grasses SYGrasses are perhaps the Cinderella plant of gardens, singularly unexciting in a pot in a nursery, that when planted out become dramatic and colorful and an enduring feature of any great garden

The warm colors of the variety of grasses melted into a shimmering mosaic of native vegetation, while their flowering seed heads swayed and nodded gently in the softness of the slightest morning breeze.

By choosing appropriate grasses for local conditions we have available, tough, easy, low cost and maintenance plants for the contemporary garden, their dependability ensuring the achievement of predictable results.

Cultural requirements, as well as private and emotional experiences, have an distinct influence on the plants we choose to grow and the way in which we use them in our gardens.

Ornamental grasses can play an integral part in any garden where form, texture and mood are crucial and are some of the most effective plants to use all around the world, with each region having grasses indigenous to their soil and topography of the land.

In Australia, as well as a superb collection of grasses, we also have the unique grass tree. It has a lifespan of six hundred years, with the trunk taking a decade to form initially. And, it takes twenty seven years to grow thirty centimetres

Grass Trees in Flower on the Great Ocean Road at Anglesea in Victoria, Australia

Eventually it grows to about four metres and attracts a wide range of lizards and insects who shelter in the plant’s massive foliage. The flowering spear of the plant attracts honey eating birds, bees, ants, and butterflies.

Planted as single specimens in beds, or on the terrace in a container, grasses are often a striking focal point, especially when they turn pink, a colour known for its calming qualities.

Wherever they are introduced into the garden they inspire feelings of restfulness and they are an instant link with the natural landscape.

Summer at Yosemite National Park

Golden grass and glorious foliage in the fall in America’s natural wonder, Yosemite National Park

The many grasses that make up the heath land at Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria remind me of the range of waist height natural grasses my family all admired many years ago in the sheltered valley of Yosemite National Park in America.

There they were left to flourish and flower unencumbered, providing an ideal place for grazing and a refuge for the local wildlife.

The grasses in Yosemite had a distinct ethereal quality about them one, which seems to me to only be achieved in colder climes.

Upon asking about them of a park guide I learned that in America the most impressive grasses in winter are those that are slow to start growing in Spring and flower late in summer.

Spectacular Pink Flowering Grass Muhlenbergia Capillaris, native to America

In the summer grasses vibrate with color, form, light and texture and their adaptability means there is a wide choice that can be used in any garden situation, including courtyard gardens because they work well as specimen container plants.

The distinct forms of many grasses and their characteristic textures, suggest a diverse range of uses within gardens in America and Australia.

Successful plant combinations rely upon the interplay between the growth habits of the individual plants.

By the sea, in full sun, in the shade of trees or, swampy ground grasses adapt themselves to grow in particular types of soil.

They are inextricably linked to the countryside, are easy to grow and once established, happily grow in the same place for years.

If you have the room you can design a border which builds in complexity throughout the growing season to reach a climax of contrasting forms by early autumn.

Grasses, flaxes and flowers go very well together and, with water

Contrast is a vital element in planting design, which introduces dynamism and tension into the composition.

As specimen plants, as ground cover, or in association with other garden features and other garden plants, they invariably have a significant impact on their surroundings.

True grasses the Gramineae family are wind pollinated, a fact that can upset your neighbors.

You need to ask a lot of questions of the nursery you are purchasing from and choose wisely when you are planning a garden using grasses.

Delightful grasses growing in water. They soften the edges of an artificial water feature and also contrast with larger leafed plants. So if you are planning a pond be sure to include grasses

Grasses blowing in the wind

Dependant on their form grasses establish a rhythm, which although not strictly formal, succeeds in tying an overall design together and defining its boundaries.

One of the most commendable features of ornamental grasses is there contribution to the garden picture as a whole.

They are successful because they evolve quickly and take advantage of just about every conceivable habitat available. Rarely do we come across water without a grassy fringe.

Grasses like all other perennials have their preferences regarding soil type; moisture level and shade tolerance, but they are generally easy plants to grow.

And just like all other plants, all newly planted grasses need regular watering.

Larger grasses are stunning when associated with equally impressive perennials and when such a grouping is placed next to water the result gives the illusion of an exotic swamp.

Their ease of maintenance and robust character allows many grasses to grow on difficult sites where many other plants may fail. Their fibrous root systems are extremely effective in preventing soil erosion.

Zosia grass, mounding beautifully, echoing the shape of the rocks it surrounds

This makes them ideal plants for establishing on steep slopes and banks where conventional mowing is either difficult or flat out impossible.

Another grass that is a great advantage in many settings is Zoysia, or as it is more commonly called, no-mow grass.

This creeping grass is native to southeast and east Asia, north to China and Japan and Australia.

Named for the Austrian botanist Karl von Zois it is hardy, tolerating wide variations in temperature, sunlight, and water.

It has become popular because of its fine texture and low growth habit. It will form dense mats and even mounds that will grow over and around low rock features.

Give me a home among the grasses, sedges and the gum trees…

Grasses provide essential nutrients to much of our fauna and grasses and sedges are easy to confuse.

Sedges, the Cyperaceae family, are mostly perennial evergreen herbs that are found growing naturally in moist situations.

Some species possess coloured foliage and work well as a low growing ground cover for shady and moist garden situations.

Much sedge develops clumps of arching leaves best appreciated when the plants are grown as a single specimen.

In Australia Wombats, one of our most delightful native animals are herbivores, and their diet consists mostly of grasses, sedges, herbs, bark and roots.

The very popular black bamboo, or Phyllostachys nigra

It would surprise many that Bamboo is considered a grass, but it does come under the same botanical classification.

Bamboo is among the most versatile of plants, being hardy and reliable, however susceptible to neglect.

Many are evergreen and some perform better in shade. Bamboo is particularly useful in awkward corners where other plants struggle.

It always imparts grace and elegance to its surroundings. The black variety Phyllostachys nigra is especially dramatic.

This sets its many varieties quite apart from all other plants. It provides atmosphere and ambiance.

It can also be grown as a natural screen around, for instance, an outdoor shower or other such feature, instead of using normal fencing materials.

The best way of propagating perennial grasses is by division of the root ball.

Seedlings are best developed in pots and then planted out during the growing season.

Most evergreen grasses need an annual tidy up. The aim should be to remove any dead or untidy leaves, but not to completely defoliate the plants.

True deciduous grasses need bringing down to ground level each year in late winter. Those grasses that are members of the Umbelliferae family provide both harmony and contrast in relation to grasses. Their flowers, typically form into flat topped umbels, the most familiar member of this family is fennel.

Rushes by the Yarra River, Melbourne Victoria

Rushes are particularly useful for accommodating wet boggy places as well as dry places, where many other plants struggle to survive. The true rush has cylindrical pointed leaves and their flowers and fruits are of more importance to botanists than gardeners. And, flax are another plant native grasses grow happily together with.

The distinctive appearance of some grasses makes them an invaluable companion plant. Striking combinations with bold flowering annuals or, textured perennials, can be harmonious or contrasting.

In a modern commercial park, where the design of the building is bold, and there is no time to take in a fussy planting scheme, grasses provide a dynamic impact, becoming an extension of the architecture.

While not mad on mown grass, in certain settings it is an aspect of the overall design of a garden

Grasses inspire feelings of restfulness and they are integral to the natural landscape. If you are considering them to be part of your landscape choose carefully.

Take into account their location and the colours, textures and form of the grasses you choose to use.

In a domestic setting if they are dispersed through perennials and other established shrubs they will create a sumptuous border which can be set off by the smooth surface of the lawn.

In spaces, other than a gentle bank by a river, tightly mown green grass lawns help to shape the spaces they occupy by introducing pattern and defining form.

For two millennia the worship of nature has expressed itself in great cultural diversity.

Ensure that the grasses you choose to grow for your domestic or commercial space are compatible with the growing conditions and local climate of your area and that you are not allergic to them.

If you do then you will find that they will contribute much, because they are low maintenance and help to conserve water.

We also have the added joy of being able to consider their wonderful aesthetic.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2013



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