Blades of glory

For a range of new looks around the garden, get growing grass

By Lee Ann Bramwell

Not too long ago the only grasses we really knew about were carex and gossamer – and lawn, of course. But the Australians have steamed in with their stunningly successful lomandra, and we are now seeing other varieties from the US, Japan and elsewhere. How’s a girl to choose?

The availability and popularity of different grasses has spearheaded a resurgence in their use in urban settings, as well as in swathe and meadow gardens. But like all plants, they have their pros and cons (one of the Aussie jobs is actually called Little Con) and several nurserymen have told me that the New Zealand natives can be unreliable compared to their counterparts from across the Tasman. (Maybe the Australian nursery gurus should change the name of Little Con to Little Pro, though that could also create issues.)

Dodgy performances from the Kiwi grasses have been my experience, too. I’ve planted swathes of Carex comans and done everything right, only to lose most of them, and other areas where I’ve done everything wrong, they’ve thrived. I planted 100 Carex secta on our stream edge because they love a damp spot, but 10 months later the sad little things had done nothing. Then
a mini- ood washed quite a few of them out, and in a matter of weeks they’d made landfall further down the stream edge, planted themselves, and grown to around 700cm tall. Go figure.

But there is probably a grass for almost every situation – shady, sunny, wet, dry, windy, sheltered, whatever – so if you choose the right one, you’re halfway there. But before you plonk your money down, check on the internet and make sure you’re not planting something that’ll spread all over the country in a heartbeat – pampas is a shining example of that.

When grasses first became the landscaping plant of choice a few decades ago, they were more often than not used singly or in rows in riverstone gardens. Now we’ve recognised that they look brilliant with a heap of mates in a casual setting. Chuck in a bit of wind, and you’ve got ever-moving grasses that sparkle in the light.

The colour palette is, in terms of the plant world, vast, with golds, yellows, oranges, browns, reds, creams, blues and greens offering terrific scope in garden design. And as a bonus, there
are the flower heads, which are gorgeous.

If you want to go native, tussocks like Carex comans and Carex testacea are suited to windy coastal sites. Wind tolerant tussocks for moist coastal soils include Carex trifida and Chionochloa rubra. In damp spots, Carex secta is your baby. The blue and silver foliage grasses are generally tolerant of the dry, so it’s a wonder there are any left in the North Island nurseries. The bright blue native Festuca coxii forms a compact clump about 35cm high, and covers the ground so pretty much nothing will grow underneath. It needs regular hairdressing, though, as the underside tends to brown off.

Another beautiful blue is the cold climate Poa colensoi, a small tussock that grows only about 25cm tall. It doesn’t like humidity and demands good air circulation.
And let’s not forget the incredibly beautiful Gossamer grass Anemanthele lessoniana. Plant it in the shade, which it prefers, and it’s a lovely soft green, but in a sunnier location it’ll turn reddish gold. It self-seeds from rosy flower stems, so if you don’t want more, best give the flowers the chop as soon as they’re past their best.

Chionochloa flavicans is another beauty, with drooping flower stems up to 1.5m tall. They change from green to cream in autumn. Once you’ve explored all the native grasses, it’s tempting to
start dipping into the really exotic stuff. However, councils and conservation organisations will warn you to be wary – some of them are problem weeds when grown here.

But there are varieties which are perfectly well behaved, in particular the Miscanthus with their gorgeous autumn flower heads. Miscanthus zebrina (zebra grass) is a tall, deciduous species with stripy leaves, Elegia capensis from South Africa is tall, broad and rush-like, with papery sheaths up its stems and russet flower heads, and the smaller-growing Elegia cuspidata has bronze flower heads in papery bracts.

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon) is a real stunner – tall and elegant, quite frost- and drought-hardy, and happy enough in a pot.

Civic landscapers must have been dancing in the streets when the Australian Lomandra Tanika arrived in New Zealand. They needed a plant that was drought tolerant, evergreen in almost all situations (drought and frost), would compete with weeds, look good naturally with practically no care, and not grow too tall. So it’s no wonder that just about every roadside planting and traffic island in the north is packed with these Aussie battlers.

And of course they’re great for residential use as well. Most of them don’t mind humidity, they do full sun or partial shade without complaint, and they can handle drought, frost, heat, fire and even clay. The spring flower heads of virtually all of them offer small, creamy yellow flowers.

In residential gardens, Lomandra confertifolia Little Pal is a favourite. It grows to about 50cm, remains a shiny green and doesn’t go tatty the way many native grasses do. It has a little brother, a dwarf form called Little Con, which forms a ball shaped mound of lime green.

My favourite is Lomandra Seascape, which has fine, dark blue-grey foliage and a graceful weeping habit. It has a way of picking up the light, and moonlight or starlight will turn it into something quite magical. As a bonus, the flowers that appear in summer are highly fragrant.

Don’t let anyone tell you that grasses and tussocks – especially the native varieties – are maintenance free. Certainly they do well and don’t grumble much if you live in the dry centre of the South Island, but in less than ideal conditions, which is pretty much everywhere else, they can turn shabby after a few months or years.

On the plus side, they don’t suffer much from diseases and pests, unless you count being dug up by pukeko or rolled on by cats. So by all means fall in love, but don’t form a deep and
meaningful relationship until you know they’ll perform the way you want them to. A little pampering, especially at planting time, will help to cement the relationship. Those that like the dry will appreciate grit – or gravel – added to the soil. Those that like moisture will benefit from compost.

Water and weed grasses regularly until established. In spring, give them a good grooming. Using a gloved hand or a three pronged cultivar tool, ease out the dead foliage. If they look unruly you can give them a haircut, but please don’t just whack the tops off in a straight line. Follow the original shape of the foliage with very sharp secateurs.

As with any visit to the hairdresser, they should look and feel a million bucks at the end of it.

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