Five years ago, while the upper terrace was being built, I was sitting at the dining room table poring over the planting plan and dithering about what to use in the planting pockets to soften the expanse of stonework.
Looking for a grass that would tolerate an impoverished life in shallow wall pockets introduced me to African weeping love grass.
Clumps of Eragrostis curvula may look rather unprepossessing in the wild, but this grass has a reputation for being a resilient fodder crop and stabiliser of infertile, eroded, often sandy soils. As I was window shopping for a grass with a robust nature all this sounded promising.
Long, arching stems of steely grey flowers in summer, as in the type. The mature leaves are dark wine red from midway. Best in a sunny well drained site or large pot. It always looks best against gravel, wood, stone or silver foliage, not against green or earth. Surprisingly hardy if well drained.
A few years earlier an exciting and beautiful cultivar had been introduced, Eragrostis curvula ‘Totnes Burgundy’. Julian and Sarah Suttons’ excellent if image free 2011-12 catalogue of sought after plants was a great source of inspiration. The description of their then fairly newly released red leaved cultivar ticked a lot of boxes for me. As Desirable Plants in Devon is not open to the public, I had to go elsewhere to check it out for myself.
Knoll Gardens is home to this stunning specimen grown in a terracotta planter. The colour of the pot is a perfect compliment to the elongated gorgeous wine red summer foliage. The proportions of the 3′ tall long tom pot are well matched to the size and shape of the plant, this one is round but square ones work beautifully too. The decision was made : we came home with a crateful and a vision of gorgeous tinted leaves cascading down the pink and grey stonework.
In many respects the dozen eragrostis I came home with have excelled : they cope really well with the dry conditions in summer which are then followed by cold wet winters. The grass works with the sandstone and the planting, especially the blue green leaves of Nepeta Six Hills Giant and the mahogany red of Sedum ‘Voodoo’. The mid height mounded shape is also a good contrast to the upright Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and ‘Overdam’.
However, ‘Totnes Burgundy’ is a clonal cultivar from a fast growing species, the dozen I planted should have developed a more dramatically draping habit than this by now. I’d still describe them as arching but the leaves are about a foot shorter than expected.
The closer you get the easier it is to see the red tints that develop from the tips as they mature in late summer. When Neil Lucas visited the garden earlier this autumn, when they should have been at their peak, we discussed where I’d gone wrong. He advised removing the flowering stems as they appear, before they set seed. Denuding a grass of flowers might seem an odd thing to do, but when it comes to this particular grass, I think this may be a good idea. It’s often suggested in reference books, but the reason for doing so is not always explained. Apparently, the draping habit relies on a dense basal cluster of leaves, depriving the grass of its flowers encourages more foliage and so an improved habit.
Although the desirable cultivar is often described as having ‘insignificant’ flowers I still find them attractive, I would miss them, even in November when most of the seed is spent. Yet, there might be another reason to remove them : seedlings revert to the species type.
The stonework and gravel paths landscaping the west-facing sunny bank in front of the house are a microclimate for warm climate self-seeders that would usually require a propagator to germinate. Stipa gigantea, Nasella tenuissima and Eragostis curvula favour the gravel but because it is laid over stout driveway grade membrane, sand and slabs of shelving rock they never come to much. They are easily weeded out. However, as the mortar weathers and moss gathers an opportunity arises for weeds of all sorts to creep in, those with penetrating roots are able to take hold and do some damage. First year seedlings are removed promptly, the strong mat forming root system is quite impressive – they grow on well if potted up. Those that seed back into the pockets are much more vigorous than the parent plants, this is a tricky situation which calls for the referee’s whistle to be blown, only the progeny are not the only ones potted up for time out. This year I have five ‘Totnes Burgundy’ recuperating in the nursery.
In a few of the pockets the plain green form does a better job than its more colourful parent and I’m inclined to let them stay put. For instance, the group of invaders above the cornerstone are much stronger plants, they make more of a visual impact and I like the way the pendulous flowering stems nod to greet me above the path to the front door.
The linear quality of the stonger flowering stems of the green form looks good as details among the catmint.
Earlier in the year, Nick Macer of Pan Global was singing the praises of the only other cultivar avaiable in the UK, Eragrostis curvula SH10, on The Great British Garden Revival – the programme is on YouTube, Nick’s slot is 51 minutes in. He uses eragrostis as a striking contrast to the tense architectural form of Agaves and describes a mass of them in full flower as a ‘misty cloud’.
Due to my mismanagement of ‘Totnes Burgundy’ I now have the species type dotted in a line along the wall top, the effect is sparse but I can see how good they’d look en masse. The airy panicles have a light catching pale olive-grey tint and seem to be produced more abundantly than the red leaved cultivar throughout the growing season.
Eragrostis curvula is a splendid grass not least for retaining its poise throughout the winter – I think, minus the distracting hoorah of the more colourful perennials, this is when weeping love grass has a well deserved chance to shine. If I want the dreamy tresses of burgundy foliage I may well have to invest in some equally elegant planters and treat it to a little extra TLC.