The end of November still brought us beautiful, crisp, sunny days and some cold nights with frost when the silver birch looks at it’s most regal. But it was still warm enough to garden and to keep working on the changes for next year. It is true that there is a lovely clarity about the slightly-felled winter garden which often really helps when thinking about changes…which I always am. It’s not about restlessness, more about continually working away as things themselves evolve, and create new possibilities. There are always too those corners which, for some deep psychological reason, I occasionally torture myself with by leaving them to fall into decrepitude. I am then forced to the altar of decision by the mess that I have allowed to develop. Strange business, the mind.
But, after a few days enjoying a wintery London, I came back to a freezing mist and was slightly amazed that the car started first time in the airport carpark. Back home, dawn the following morning, was a delight. Light creeping into leaf shapes and cracks, dusting the top of iced plants and so, despite the fact that my usual dressing gown was supplemented by my winter parka, I rushed back into the house to get the camera and do my best with it. Piet Oudolf is quite right, the best plants die well as well as grow well.
It was too cold, shady and wet in my Scottish garden to try out tall grasses, and, truth to be told, I was slightly scared that they would overpower the garden- and me! But 11 years later, in Tostat, I have many different grasses planted throughout the garden, and I adore them, come winter, spring or summer.
In our warmer climate, at least in the summer, Miscanthus can be a vigorous self-seeder, which, I read, is less likely in the UK. In my experience, the plants take quite a while to settle in, maybe up to 3 years or more, and self-seeding isn’t an issue till maybe 5 years on from planting. But to be honest, they are easy to spot as babies once you acclimatise your eyes to the slender tufts, and then they are easily hoiked out if you don’t want them there. So, for my money, not a problem.
We have some great German nurserymen to thank for many of the varieties we grow. Karl Foerster, the great early 20th century nurseryman, who ended his life as the only supplier of perennials in East Germany, bred one of the best ornamental grasses there is- Calamagrostris acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.
I grow this here and it is one of my favourites, but to my shock, I realised I didn’t have a decent photograph of it. So, what you see below, is how it looks today, slightly tatty, but you can maybe see that it is a delicate grass, very upright, with very slim, fine flowering stalks and leaves, in a delicate green, which is now winter brown. In fact, Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’ doesn’t appear to self-seed at all, and I have had it in the garden for well over eight years. Leaning across the photograph is the much fatter seedhead of a Miscanthus, so at least you can see the difference!
Miscanthus, as a genus, is a star, and one I find very hard to resist. My absolute favourite workhorse Miscanthus is ‘Silberfeder‘. Tall, pretty much vertical despite summer storms, it creates tall accents without drowning out smaller players, and the movement in the breeze is captivating. When it flowers, the flowers emerge as bronze-pink and are enchanting against light. Tough as nails, it will be a little fed up with extended winter wet, but has survived every rainy Spring with aplomb here. Hans Simon, another famous German nurseryman bred ‘Silberfeder’ in 1955′.
‘Malepartus’ has struggled a little for me, unusually for a Miscanthus, but here it is, earlier in the summer, adding real pzazz to perennial sunflowers. ‘Malepartus’ was the work of another great German nurseryman, Ernst Pagels, working a little after Karl Foerster. He was keen to introduce Miscanthus varieties that would bloom earlier than Autumn, and would therefore extend the use of ornamental grasses in Northern gardens. ‘Malepartus’ flowers more than 6 weeks earlier than my other Miscanthus- you can see how it looked in early August this year below.
For one of the most stunning displays of grasses, visit Sussex Prairies, just outside Henfield, in Sussex. I was blown away by my visit there. Grasses are planted and designed to allow you to experience walking through them and amongst them, and the accompanying perennial planting is stunning. Here are a couple of photographs of my visit there in 2013. Persicaria orientalis, now that’s something I want to try…what’s not to like? Six feet tall, great big tobacco-like leaves and pink tassels? And what’s more, Mary Keen likes it.