In the garden with Warwickshire College

PUBLISHED: 09:28 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:33 20 February 2013

Ornamental grasses are easy to grow and very popular. Bob Hares has some tips on choosing the best

In recent years, ornamental grasses have become very popular, and rightly so. They are extremely diverse in so many respects, and although most of them require a sunny and open situation, they are not difficult to please. Many grasses are graceful, and the taller kinds will often give us that extra and very desirable attribute of movement, even in the slightest breeze. The Giant Oat Grass, or Stipa gigantea, is an excellent example, combining its tall graceful habit with a gentle swaying of the flower stems. No wonder this grass is popular nowadays. Flower arrangers love the grasses too, as so many are suitable for cutting and drying.

Q. I do love grasses, but to my eye many of them seem quite similar to each other. Can you suggest a few really distinct ones that I might grow to get me started?

A. Anyone with a collection of grasses should include at least one of two Miscanthus sinensis. There are many cultivars of this available, and usually they are quite tall and very graceful. Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus is particularly good in these respects, with its slender, curved leaves which have the added attraction on turning an attractive bronze in the autumn. Pennisetum villosum is another of my favourites, owing to its bristly, plume-like panicles of flowers spill over onto a pathway in late summer, and well into the autumn. This one doesnt grow more than about two feet high and is lovely at the front of a border. Not only does the habit of grasses vary a great deal, but also the leaf colour, and quite distinct in foliage are some of the Switch Grasses, such as the metallic colour you get with Panicum virgatum Heavy Metal! The leaves of this cultivar are quite erect and turn which turn yellow in the autumn. Stipa arundinacea, or Pheasants tail grass from New Zealand, grows up to four feet in height, whose leathery, dark green leaves gradually turn orange-brown in the summer and autumn, persisting right through into the winter.

Q. I understand most grasses like the sun, but is there a colourful one I could plant in my shade border?

A. One of the best for this purpose is the Bowles Golden Grass, or Milium effusum Aureum, of sometimes known as Golden Wood Millet. It is only about 12 inches high, and has rich golden foliage, especially in the spring. The tiny and delicate golden-stemmed spikelets are very attractive too. This pretty woodland species will seed around quite happily, and are not difficult to pull out if you get too many, but do cut them back just before the start of the new growth in the spring. These are of course only a few examples of the wonderful choice we have, and there are so many other groups I havent mentioned, each with many variations of height, habit of growth, leaf colour, and which are, in the main, very hardy. They will grow well in most ordinary garden soils, but as with all aspects of gardening, you may well need to experiment as you go along to obtain the best effect. Good luck!

Bob Hares provides a FREE gardening advice service to Royal Horticultural Society members every Monday at Pershore from 9am to 4.30pm. Personal visits are by appointment. Bobs advice line telephone number is 01386 551145. If you would like a query answered on these pages please email marking your email Gardens.

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