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The grass. is always greener... HOME TRUTHS.

Byline: John Humphries

THINK of ornamental grasses and there is a risk that all you see in your mind's eye is pampas grass - large, untidy and impossible to eradicate even with fire.

Pampas grass might grow no taller than four feet - it is often recommended for smaller gardens - and its feathery plumes are certainly graceful but none of this compensates for its thug-like nature.

Although it is generally advised that plants should be grouped in threes or fives, one specimen of pampas grass is more than enough for any border and then at the very back where it can cause least damage.

Pampas grass has a root system that is as invasive as that of couch grass. I once doused a pampas grass in a gallon of petrol and set it alight only to see fresh green shoots a few weeks later.

But not all ornamental grasses are bad boys - the majority having one big advantage over most other herbaceous plants. Whatever their size, their stems are strong enough to support the flowers and seed heads without the need to stake. In addition to which they need little attention while pests and diseases present few problems.

But before making a selection, examine the root system of which there are three basic types. Those with creeping stems above ground will root in almost any place they touch; those with underground roots grow through any plant in their path; while the tufted types are the smallest and safest.

Most grasses do best in an open, sunny position, with soil that is well drained and on the light side but contains a reasonable amount of humus for moisture retention. Ideally, it should be low in nutrients, for too rich a soil will make the foliage grow vigorously at the expense of flowers or seed-heads. Most perennial grasses die back in winter but if the dead foliage is left until early spring it helps protect the crown from frost. The small tufted species and cultivars that do not die back need to be trimmed in spring.

While there are no fixed rules, grasses like other herbaceous plants, have to be lifted and divided from time to time but can be left usually for five years so long as they are not too large for the area they have been allocated. Division is best carried out in spring when new growth appears, a divided plant often failing in autumn because the roots do not have time to establish.

It is always best to see ornamental grasses growing before deciding on what species to buy. Several varieties form tall bamboo-like clumps of bold leaves, which look particularly good near water, like Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus and Gracillimus.

Some prefer a moist soil, including the tufted hair grass, Deschampsia caespitose, and another of my favourites, the Japanese blood grass Red Baron (Imperata cylindrical). For neat little clumps plant Carex Evergold, an evergreen with brightly variegated leaves, while fountain grass (Pennisetum) makes a wonderful display with purplish flower heads that resemble hairy caterpillars.

Bamboos also come within the general category of grasses, but although some are attractive they require plenty of room and their roots are very invasive. You could always try growing them as windbreaks while after three years they do produce garden canes.

When moving a large shrub, wrap sacking or polythene around the root ball to keep as much soil as possible attached to it.

WEEK Clay soil that has not been previously cultivated is best dug in autumn while it is dry and reasonably manageable.

THIS

DO Plant out biennials for spring flowering, like wallflowers and polyanthus. TO

Hardy annuals can be sown outside where they are to flower next year.

Plant spring bulbs in September, except

THINGS tulips, which can be left until October, even November.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 29, 2009
Words:634
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