Winter Wonderland

Like most people across the UK I awoke yesterday to a Winter Wonderland. Grateful that I didn’t need to drive anywhere, I layered fleeces over my pyjamas, grabbed my wellies and my camera, and ventured out into the magical hush of fresh snow. There’s nothing quite like the sound of that crunch underfoot. The white blanket covered the fallen leaves I’d failed to clear up and obscured the outlines of plants and trees. I took the obligatory photos of snowy seedheads and half-buried plants, but I was distracted. I’ve spent a lot of time these past few months pondering the future of my Pond Bed. It was first planted up back in Spring 2005. I was entranced by various images of so-called “Prairie Planting”, and was aiming for a naturalistic scheme full of colour and texture. The backbone was a selection of grasses. This was back in the days when I could afford to “buy” a garden, so I had the luxury of pouring over nursery catalogues and websites and ordering mature plants from everywhere from Beth Chatto’s nursery to Knoll Gardens. The result was an expensive dogs breakfast.

In my defence I was completely new to the world of mixed perennial planting, and everything I knew about grasses came from books. Up until then I had majored on shrubs and trees, and had created a backbone of largely evergreen plants that contrasted well and screened the garden. I was confident with shrubs. I’d had a lot of complements about my borders. My first attempts at using grasses however…

Messy Border

The mess pictured above was the Pond Bed in the summer of 2005. Way too many grasses, with way too many different habits and forms, all jostling for position, none looking good. I had a Stipa gigantea (of coursse), Molinia caerulea ‘Moorhexe’, Molinia caerulea spp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’, Molinia c. spp. a. ‘Windspiel’, Miscanthus sinensis ‘China’ (which I have been mis-naming ‘Morning Light’ because I’d lost my notes), Miscanthus s. ‘Malepartus’, Miscanthus s. ‘Kleine Fontäne’, Hakonechloa macra, Poa chaixii, Carex grayi (known as Mace sedge), and finally, Carex muskingumensis (Palm Leaf sedge). Embarrassing but true. I really thought I could cram all those in together, plus some late summer flowering perennials, and that it would look stunning. It didn’t, it was a mess, nothing had enough room, there was nowhere for the eye to settle. More than that, I quickly learnt that the stems of Molinia caerulea spp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ get flattened by the slightest wind and come Autumn just fold over and look messy. So much for the beautiful transparent screen wafting in front of my prized Acer. I’ve been gradually removing grasses from that border ever since, and I’m not done yet.

It’s a case of “less is more”. I want any grass that I keep in this border to make a really strong contribution in its own right, preferably with a long season of interest, and to play well with others. The snow made the garden almost monochrome, so that the essential architecture of the plants was thrown into sharp relief, and it really helped me to decide what I need to do next. I have three Miscanthus remaining, two Miscanthus s. ‘China’ and one Miscanthus s. ‘Kleine Fontäne’.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Kleine Fontäne'

Miscanthus s. ‘Kleine Fontäne’ has quite an upright habit, and very gracefully cascading long narrow leaves. Growing to around 1.6m, it adds a wonderful structural element to the border, so it stays.

Miscanthus sinensis 'China'

Miscanthus s. ‘China’ has a looser habit than ‘Kleine Fontäne’, slightly shorter in my garden, although this could be because it is less upright. It is the grass I have been mis-naming ‘Morning Light’, and I have taken numerous photographs of the light shining through its silvered seed heads this Autumn. It has glorious Autumn colour, and although it can flop quite badly at times and needs a little tidying up to keep it looking good, it too adds another strong structural element to the garden, particularly from late summer onwards until I finally cut it back in February. I have two of these, making three Miscanthus altogether (the original and very beautiful Miscanthus s. ‘Malepartus’ is now out in the garage bed at the front of the house). The similarity in seed head and foliage is enough to give that natural rhythm you get from planting in threes, but they offer something different to one another too, which is welcome. Which brings me to the Molinia.

Neat mound of Molinia foliage

The picture above was taken at the end of May this year. You can see the graceful arching leaves of the Miscanthus s. ‘Kleine Fontäne’ to the right behind the foxglove, then moving left the fabulous foliage of Veronicastrum, which I had to move, and then the cluster of three Molinia cearulea ssp. arundinacea ‘Windspiel’. At this point in the season the foliage creates graceful mounds, which echo the Hakonechloa macra which you can just see in the front left. I thought perhaps I needed to reduce the clump to just a single specimen, they need dividing anyway having become congested, but overall, I liked the effect. Fast forward a month.

Messy molinia foliage

Seen in black and white, the Hakonechloa macra in the foreground is looking beautiful, forming a neat mound. The Miscanthus still looks elegant with its upright shape and fountain of leaves. The Veronicastrum looks very sad, and then the Molinia. To my eye, just a messy jumble of foliage. I know that if it were just the single specimen I had been planning to leave it would look a lot better, but now it all hangs on the flowers.

Almost Worth Saving

At the end of October the Molinia has turned a gorgeous butter yellow colour, and the seedheads form an airy mass at the back of the border. Delightful. The day I took this photo I was questioning the wisdom of thinning the clump it looked so good. Sadly, the flower stems are so slender that they quickly flop, turning a once-graceful group of plants back into a mess. I can’t leave the seedheads through the winter to catch the frost and add structure, because they just lie on the ground looking pathetic, so it adds nothing to the later Autumn and winter garden. More than that, the flowers are rather insignificant until they turn yellow. True, up close they have a lovely purple tinge to them, but overall, they don’t add much. The picture below was taken in late August this year. Again, using black and white to enhance the structural qualities of the planting, I just don’t think the Molinia is earning its keep.

Insignificant molinia flowers

If I get rid of (i.e. find alternative homes for) the Molinia c. spp. a. ‘Windspiel’ I will open up a large space for more perennials. The three Miscanthus will form the main structural interest, while the Hakonechloa and Stipa tenuissima will provide lower growing texture and contrast. In such a small space, limiting the different genus of grass to just three should make the border feel far more coherent. The Molinia simply doesn’t work quite hard enough for me in this space.

I’m grateful that this new blogging habit has made me more ready to get my camera out and document the garden so that I can sit back and analyse what works and what doesn’t. I’m grateful for the way that the monochrome nature of snowfall brought the grasses issue into sharp relief. Most of all, I am grateful that I didn’t give up on trying to garden with grasses. It may have taken me 5 years – although in fairness for two of those I wasn’t here to garden – but so many grasses add so much grace, texture and dynamism to the garden. I wouldn’t be without them.

Miscanthus In Snow

24 thoughts on “Seeing things in Black and White

  1. Yes, you are right when you say less is more.
    I enjoy the way that you are analysing the plants and deciding what is right for you in your garden / situation / weather etc.
    Looking at the structure of the garden in black and white is such a useful thing to do.

    I wouldn’t be without grasses in my garden either.

  2. This was a fascinating post, with a real “story” to how you experimented with design. The snow and the black & white photos are a huge help in seeing form and structure. I was very tentative using grasses at first in my new borders because I had seen such overuse around my neighborhood. What little I have now I like. You will get there! Loved the evolution of your thoughts.

    1. Hi Mark, yes, I always find it a really helpful way to analyse structural planting.

  3. While I don’t have any grasses in my garden, I do love them, and need to find a way to incorporate them into my design. This summer I pulled out a huge section of a groundcover and two overgrown shrubs that had turned a beautiful bed into a dark, moldy hole. Once I had more space it was fun to play with different textures and foliage hues. Do you ever grow yarrow (achillea)? It’s very soft and ferny with beautiful flowers.

    1. Hi TS, sounds like you have freed yourself up a wonderful new area to plant! I have two Achilleas growing from seed that I plan to use, partly for the flower form but also partly because of that wonderful foliage. What do you like to plant them with?

  4. Whoops. I hit a wrong button and may have left half a message. :-) You’re doing a great job of editing. The progression of photos helps, doesn’t it? Getting the balance of repetition and contrast is a delicate job and often takes time. Thanks for sharing your process with us.

    1. Thank you – it really helped, having to explain it all, made me think it all through properly in one go rather than just dithering!

  5. I loved this post – very accute way to look at it all – well done you – I’m note taking on some of the grasses which I *might* be able to get away with up here – any you’d absolutely recommend from your experience for a bit of a windy island spot?

    1. Hi Fay, and thank you, glad you enjoyed the post. Either of Hakonechloa macra or Stipa tenuissima would work wonderfully in your coastal garden, and would also look lovely planted with your Ladies Mantle. If you wanted the whole wafting seed heads thing I’d stear clear of the Molinias, in my experience they just get flattened. I think the Miscanthus would stand up well to the wind, I’d try ‘Kleine Fontäne’ rather than ‘China’ because although it is taller it has a quite upright ans stiff shape, whereas ‘China’ gets a little dishevelled even in my garden, and you have rather more wind to content with…

  6. Janet, I so enjoyed this post, thank you. The idea of using black and white photos to see the structure is such a good one. You can see you’ve made the right choices and it is so important to think about how plants work for you, not just what they do somewhere else. I am enjoying the process of really looking hard and writing for the blog helps enormously. We should all ‘EDIT’ our gardens more often – a garden is afterall never finished; gardening is an ongoing process, which of course opens up another discussion about historic gardens, they can’t stand still but neither should they be allowed to loose their ‘moment in time’ appeal. Thanks again for such a thought provoking post.

    1. Hello Christina, I am so glad that you enjoyed this post, it was such a helpful process for me, others getting something out of it too is an added bonus! I love your comment about “editing” our gardens. I watched a documentary about Sissinghurst not long ago, and the debate between the National Trust head gardener there and one of Vita’s descendants about how much should stay the same and what should change was fascinating. Interestingly it was the gardener who wanted it to be almost static, and far more manicured than it ever was in Vita’s day. I think these historic gardens tend to become prisoners of our expectations of them, whereas any garden should surely continue to evolve as the gardener evolves? A tricky balance and one I’m glad I don’t have to find, hard enough to work out what I want myself!

  7. A really interesting post, I also eventually found that less is more. Don’t you really just have to find this out for yourself. Have a happy Christmas Alistair

    1. Hi Alistair, yes, I think in gardening as in life, you tend to learn best the hard way!

  8. I think your garden is a joy full of great textures and color in black and white or in color. It is really most lovely. It is nice to follow your thought processes as to how you design too. You stay warm and stay safe! And Happy Holidays if I don’t talk to you again. tina

  9. This is an excellent post, and your garden is looking lovely. I think grasses are hard to do. I tend to learn by trial and error, but you demonstrate how effective that method can be! Gardening is an ever growing, ever changing process, and that is one thing that makes it so much fun.

    Have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful, productive new gardening year!

  10. Janet, my first visit here and I really love this post. You are very smart to use B&W photos to analyze how a border is working structurally – color is always fun but distracting. And yes, this is a case where “less is more” in terms of limiting the varieties of the grasses. That palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis) can spread dramatically so it’s probably good you removed it; I planted it along a client’s streambank and it started overwhelming some of the tamer players, like Bowles’ Golden. Anyway, thanks for the tour of this part of your garden – I look forward to returning for future posts!

    1. Hi Melissa, thank you for visiting and leaving such a lovely comment. Yes, I’d noticed that palm sedge spreading somewhat, could be really useful in the right setting, but not in my current garden!

  11. Hello – a belated look at this lovely post, via Blotanical. as a garden design I found it very interesting – as others have said the black and white photos, and the winter ones, help you decide what you like. I love the veronicastrum’s leaves contrasting with the grasses. I think drifts of flowers next to grasses a la Piet Oudolf is the way to go, but it’s a personal thing.

    I too am still experimenting with grasses, and sedges too. I think I will get some miscanthus ‘Kleine Fontaine’, on the basis of this post and my sister’s lovely plant. She’s put it next to a verbascum – one of the wild and wooly ones – and a cotinus the other side of the verbascum, and it works well. I’ve found that my choices can mix well then get overwhelmed by fast growing neighbours next to my pond – I have carex pendula, looking very appropriate there, however it has dwarfed a sedum purpureum and very much got rid of the little grass next to it which went so well to start with!

    1. Hi Jane, thanks for stopping by, lovely to know this post is still of interest. ‘Kleine Fontaine’ plus verbascums sounds lovely. I know what you mean about a planting combination working really well and then something growing too big spoils it. I guess it is one of the reasons that a garden can never be said to be finished, we always have to deal with that fourth dimension, time.

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