Inspiration for designing with grasses

Grasses are loved for their natural beauty, versatility and elegance and rightly earn their place as indispensable plants in a garden. They can play a key part in a variety of design situations, and provide a stylish and dependable presence in the garden throughout the year which makes them especially valuable. We look at some great ways that grasses have been used in garden designs.

Blocks of Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldschleier’ are used in a minimalist and contemporary design. The gold flower heads contrast with the dark background and harmonise with the rich copper and buttery tones of the surrounding planting.

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A path winds itself through blocks of tall grasses and drifts of perennials in this garden designed by Dan Pearson.

Grasses are expertly interwoven amongst perennials in this contemporary courtyard garden by Tom Stuart Smith.

A more restful and relaxed planting scheme of grasses and herbaceous perennials by Tom Stuart Smith (above) and an informal herbaceous border by Dan Pearson (below) with grasses and perennials beautifully combined.

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Stipa tenuissima add a light and airy feel to this country garden border (above), whilst Stipa gigantea are used as a focal point in this dry gravel garden (below).

Grasses form an integral part of this traditional herbaceous border at RHS Wisley, and provide rhythm and repetition to the planting.

Grasses combined together can result in some effective planting combinations where the interest is provided by the contrasting textures.

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Sprays of shimmering flowerheads punctuate the planting of this garden by Piet Oudolf in the prairie style.

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The ethereal qualities of grasses can give a planting scheme drama and beauty, and provide a perfect foil for contrasting plant forms such as the spires and round flower heads below.

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The textural qualities of grasses add movement and life to a border. In this garden of Christopher Bradley Hole, grasses billow out on to the gravel path (above), and the flower heads provide a golden haze above the lower growing foliage (below).

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Some of the most desirable and useful grasses are:

Anemanthele lessoniana

The pheasants tail grass has a pleasing arching habit. It has purple tinged flower spikes in summer and the evergreen leaves turn a rust brown in winter.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

A taller grass with an upright habit, Calamagrostis lends an architectural presence to the garden and can be used to add a strong vertical line to planting. Its useful in a variety of design situations and great for providing winter interest.

Deschampsia cespitosa

The tufted hair grass is a clump forming grass with a cloud of flowers. Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldschleier’ and the shorter ‘Goldtau’ put on a display of shimmering gold flowers.

Hakonechloa macra

A beautiful slow growing evergreen grass with a clump forming habit. It is useful in a variety of design situations. H. macra ‘Aureola’ has arching lime green thinly striped leaves.

Luzula sylvatica

The great woodrush is lower growing with strap like evergreen leaves. It can be useful as ground cover or as front of border planting.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’

This is a very useful grass that can provide a structural element to a scheme. It has a mass of narrow curved green leaves with white midribs and a graceful presence in winter.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’

M. sinensis ‘Malepartus’ has a cascade of green foliage and feathery coppery brown flowerheads from late summer. It’s considered one of the easiest of the miscanthus to establish.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’

Similar in appearance to M. sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ but with a more upright habit. Its eye catching variegation make it an interesting focal point plant for the border or container.

Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’

A taller grass with an open growth habit, ‘Transparent’ has a haze of flower heads that move with the wind.

Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’

Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’ has beautiful autumn colour when its leaves turn red. This grass is good in any garden soil in full sun.

Stipa gigantea

A large grass that grows into broad evergreen clumps with long stems and oat like flowers. Flowers from early summer to late summer.

Stipa tenuissima

This neat and compact grass has soft feathery stems with pale green flowerheads and the fine leaves gently wave in the slightest breeze. A great grass for providing interest through movement.

Inspiration and photo credits:

Tom Stuart Smith

Dan Pearson

Piet Oudolf

Christopher Bradley Hole

All other photography: copyright Garden Design Eye


Piet Oudolf’s garden at the Serpentine Gallery pavilion London

The Piet Oudolf designed garden at the Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London runs for a few more weeks, so if you haven’t managed to visit yet and are interested in the work of Piet Oudolf its worth having a look.

This year’s Pavilion is the 11th commission in the Serpentine Gallery’s annual architectural programme. This year the pavilion features work by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and  includes a specially created garden by the influential Dutch designer Piet Oudolf.

The concept for this year’s Pavilion is the hortus conclusus, a contemplative room, a garden within a garden. The architect Peter Zumthor said of his central idea, “the hortus conclusus that I dream of is enclosed all around and open to the sky”.

At the heart of his pavilion is a garden in a courtyard setting that is surrounded on all sides by matt black walls and deep eaves, with a large section of its roof open to the sky. The effect is to concentrate attention on the inner central garden space but to also turn the mind to the sky outside.

Piet Oudolf’s signature is clear in this garden, with grasses and perennials figuring strongly. Typically of Piet Oudolf planting schemes, the plants that are selected offer interest in terms of form and texture as well as colour.

Featured plants

Sanguisorba canadensis. White Burnet. A clump forming hardy herbaceous perennial with bottlebrush white flower spikes in summer and early autumn. Likes full sun or part shade in a moist but well drained soil. H 1.5-2.5 metres. S 0.5-1 metre.

Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’. Japanese anemone. A hardy herbaceous perennial with pure white flowers and yellow stamens. Likes full sun or part shade and a moist but well drained soil. H 1-1.5 metres. S 0.5-1 metre.

Actaea simplex ‘James Compton’. Baneberry. A hardy herbaceous perennial with tall reddish purple stems and leaves and narrow spires of white flowers in early autumn. Likes part shade in moist but well drained soil. H 1.5-2.5 metres. S 0.5-1 metre.

Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldschleier’. Tufted hair grass. An evergreen grass with narrow dark green leaves and feathery silver purple flowers on arching stems in summer. Prefers a positon in full sun or part shade in a moist but well drained soil. H 1-1.5 metres. S 0.5-1 metre.

Astrantia major ‘Claret’. Masterwort. A clump forming hardy herbaceous perennial with wiry branched stems that bear deep red pin-cushion flowerheads from mid summer. Likes full sun or part shade in a moist but well drained soil. H 0.5-1 metre. S 0.1-0.5 metres.

Tricyrtis formosana. Toad lily. A hardy herbaceous perennial that has arching stems with star shaped or bell shaped purple and white flowers. It prefers full or part shade and a moist but well drained soil. H 0.5-1 metres. S 0.1-0.5 metres.

Eupatorium maculatum Atropurpureum Group. Joe pye weed. This clump forming hardy herbaceous perennial has purplish stems that bear clusters of small tubular rose purple flowers from mid to late summer. It likes full sun or part shade in a well drained soil. H 1.5-2.5 metres. S 0.5-1 metre.

Molinia caerulea ‘Transparent’. Purple Moor Grass. Molinia are hardy deciduous perennial grasses. ‘Transparent’ forms an attractive clump of arching foliage topped with delicate flower spikes in summer. Likes full sun or part shade with a moist but well drained soil. H 0.5-1 metre. S 0.1-0.5 metres.

Other plants used in the garden include Aconitum wilsonii ‘Barkers’, Aster macrophyllus ‘Twilight’, Rodgersia pinnata ‘Superba’, Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Alba’, Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’ and Thalictrum rochebrunianum.

Further information:

The Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2. The pavilion is open July 1–October 16, entry is free.

Want to see more Piet Oudolf?

Visit the Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe or RHS Wisley’s Glasshouse Borders

Photography: copyright Garden Design Eye