Sunday, July 17, 2011

This weekend I ran into a plant-loving friend in a local bookstore.  I am sure we must have frustrated the owner and her staff as we stood alongside the plant books and talked for over an hour, largely about native plants.
He works for DOC, his specialty being plants although he is also active among wild birds.  He had been very busy during the week, helping look after bids blown ashore by the severe westerly wind s we were subjected to last week. 
He had found time to read last week’s column and had some interesting things to say about the use of native plants in the garden, basically agreeing with me that we should use natives when appropriate, but we are creating gardens not botanical reserves and should feel free to plant whatever we want to in our gardens.
He had some interesting things to say about planting grasses, saying that they are much misused in the garden, often being planted without too much thought about the way they are going to end up looking.
I totally agree – well spaced and planted grasses can be an absolute highlight in the garden, but less than clever plantings can end up looking absolutely dreadful.  There is a large commercial planting I go past each day where some light brown Carex  comans (not strictly speaking grasses I know) were used to provide frontage to some Pittosporum ‘Irene Patterson’.  They were planted too close to each other, and have not been cared for in the years since they were planted and now present the garden with a messy brown smudge in front of the shrubs.
The interesting thing about grasses (and similar plants like sedges) is that they can basically be used one of two ways.  They can make wonderful accent plants if allowed to grow in a very natural manner amongst other plants.  This applies especially to those with a naturally weeping habit – they simply must have space around them to develop their proper shape.
Their other use is as a bulk groundcover, and here they need to be planted a little closer, but should still be spaced well enough for the individual shapes of the plants to be clear.
Most grasses have a light feel to the garden, and they usually also give the feeling of movement, twisting in the slightest breeze, adding an extra element to the environment.
Starting with the native grasses, I guess my favourite would be the colourful Carex testacea, a sea-loving plant usually seen growing in sand dunes and open scrub land. It has a mix of dark green and orange leaves, with a characteristic weeping form.  At this time of the year it colours up to a brilliant orange-red shade.  I walk past a planting of this growing in a mat of grey-green leaves of rock roses Helianthemum and it looks great.  I have never noticed the rock roses flowering but there are terra cotta forms and it would look stunning with them.  A further contrast is given by a planting of one of the blue-leaved Yuccas, the spiky growth complementing the flowing growth of the Carex.  The bed narrows at the far end, where an upright conifer of some kind is planted – perhaps Juniperus ‘Spartan’.  The only jarring note is a plant of Zantedeschia aethiopica ‘Green Goddess’, no doubt planted for its large leaves, but I am sure I could think of better options.
My friend’s favourite native grass is the red tussock Chionochloa rubra. Whoever named this tussock red must have been suffering from snow blindness as you would need very rosy spectacles to call this plant red but the bronze-ish leaves do take a reddish tinge if planted in full sun. A mountain plant, this one is taller growing, getting to over a metre high, with a similar spread.  It is easily grown, and will flourish in either dry or wet conditions.
I am not sure this is even my favourite Chionochloa as I am great fan of the dwarf toe toe, C. flavicans.  This has green leaves, looking a little like a finer leaved flax rather than a grass, but it also has beautiful flower heads, nearly  lime green when opening, but eventually  but fading  to cream coloured. This is another that looks great when planted in groups, but can also be an effective specimen plant in a smaller garden.
There are plenty of wonderful grasses, and grass-like plants among the exotics for the garden.
If you are looking for a bright blue I think the best bet is the blue oat grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens which has erect true blue leaves and delicate flower heads. If you have a modern house this is the one for your massed planting as it looks gloriously funky, especially if combined with contracting colours and foliage types.