Unlike their deciduous cousins, which once established can be cut right down to the ground in late winter/early spring, evergreen grasses grow throughout the seasons so they won’t thank you for treating them in the same way. Here are three of the several evergreens I grow, each is groomed in different ways according to the instructiions on their care labels. Given the right conditions none are hard to grow, I’ve rated the annual effort it takes to keep them looking good.
Chionochloa rubra : easy
Chionochloa rubra is the lowest maintenance grass I grow, since planting it in 2011 I haven’t laid a finger on it. Chilly weather enhances the foxy-red tints in its foliage. Thatchy strands blend in, as do spent flowering stems.
Last year this group flowered rather inconspicuously for the first time alongside the opium poppies and red valerian. Noticeably, in mid-summer, tussocks look greener than in winter.
Unlike many grasses Chionochloa rubra doesn’t divide happily, let alone romp away. Five years ago a 0.5 litre division struggled to establish, this is what it looks like today. At a third of the size of the ones bought as larger plants from Pan Global Plants a year later, this is slow progress.
Admittedly, conditions are much more favourable down in the sheltered yard, the plants growing in gravel in an open sunny spot are much stronger as a result. Even so, I’d hesitate to risk one of these tightly bunched mature specimens. So far, seed hasn’t germinated. All of which suggests that sourcing good-sized plants from a specialist nursery is a sound investment.
Stipa gigantea : medium
These days I’d say Stipa gigantea is a close second to being ultra-low maintenance. Since finding them a sunny, sheltered, and spacious spot in well-drained soil they’ve thrived on very little attention from me. Having sulked in four other positions in this as well as my last garden, I’d almost given up on them. Since 2012 the original three at the front of the border did so well that I added a further five in 2013.
Orientating them to catch the sun pays off, tall airy flowered grasses look amazing backlit, here by the mellow evening sun in high summer.
Much earlier in the year, planted a metre apart on centre allows room for clumps of Iris sibirica ‘Tropic Nights’ to be squeezed in between them, both flower early in May so any tidying of the stipa has to be done sooner rather than later in the spring. There’s not much to do, the flowering spikes fall by December here, which only leaves snipping out the woody stubs of last year’s stems in early April. If they’re looking thatchy I might lightly rake them through either using a spring tine rake or by running my hands through from the base of the plant. Stipa leaves are leathery, for me gloves are a must. Showa gloves are great for gently grooming grasses by hand, designed to be slightly tacky loose leaves stick to them. Three of these plants are now in their twelfth year, remarkably they’re still looking good, I’d expect them to be getting a little bald and nobbly in the centre. I haven’t tried it, but I’m told mature clumps divide well.
To my utter delight and amazement, the once miserable plants self-seed profusely now. The above images of seedlings lifted from the gravel path were either potted-up or planted in a nursery bed last spring. Seedlings take two years to grow a good root system, only then do they make sturdy plants for spacing in the border. Until then they’re top-heavy and, although stipa doesn’t like to be overcrowded, they work well from a young age with early summer flowering bulbs like alliums. Stipa gigantea comes in a range of sizes, from the shortest ‘Pixie’ to the tallest ‘Gold Fontaene’, last year Neil Lucas introduced ‘Goldilocks’ which is of medium height.
Anemanthele lessoniana : harder
Perhaps it’s the third of the evergreens that’s trickiest to grow well. The regime can seem complicated, especially where greater numbers of plants are involved. Anemanthele is a stunning subject for mass planting but as a short-lived New Zealand native the key is a steady supply of new plants. Fifty of them are planted a metre apart formimg a low hedge beside the drive which then curves back in a loop around the Acer griseum. Planted in three waves, they don’t need replacing all in one go. This grass doesn’t flower fully until its third year, after which a steady supply of seedlings are available to keep the structured planting going.
It took me a while to work out that young plants thrive best on relative neglect while older plants can be treated more ruthlessly. Part of my winter reading was Lawrie Metcalf’s The Cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses. I was whooping in agreement when I read his authoritative cultivation notes : anemanthele should never be cut right back to ground level. The veteran group above planted around the acer are due for retirement next year – April 2016 was their last haircut. I reduced them by 30%.
In our exposed garden overwintering foliage tips are first tinted, then dried by frosts as well as by desiccating winds, cutting them back too soon risks the new foliage too. Prolonged cold and wet spring weather can also put off them off. This year the younger and more vigorous row beside the more sheltered cedar path were cut back by 50%. For a while the blunted ends may look unsightly but as long as the tightly bunched foliage is green and lush the plants should recover.
Once the centre of the plant looks this thatchy it’s time to replace them with seedlings coming into their third year. I don’t mind the extra bit of work because between the third and fifth year the impact of the continuous mass of flowers is sublimely beautiful.
The longevity of grasses versus their seeding or growth habits fascinates me, I can see that some are much lower maintenance for being truly perennial than others. For me short-lived, free-flowering, self-seeding grasses are useful, even if their habits have to be controlled. In 1998 Metcalf warned that in optimum conditions NZ landscapers should be aware of anemanthele’s propensity to become a self-seeding nuisance, the gossamer sprays of infloresences are loaded with fine seed held on arching wiry stems intent on being tracked by hoof or boot rather than being windborne. In a garden setting this makes it easier to deal with unwanted seedlings.
To curtail wayward seedlings I deadhead anemanthele, preferably on a damp day before the seed sets. I also site them where either the mower or passing cars will check their spread. Come spring I hunt out the remaining seedlings, they’re usually huddled close to the parents, then pot them up.
Based on my experience, anemanthele does well for at least five years, more perhaps depending on the conditions in which it’s grown. Above is the runt of the driveside plants, ticking over in a very inhospitable spot this one deserves a little extra TLC, hence time with a wide-toothed dog comb. Anemanthele is a likeable chameleon, in a dry sunny spot the orange tints are sharpest, in damp shade foliage is more olive-green. In either extreme flowering seems to be restricted. Come summer I move first-year seedlings into a shady spot in the nursery area, second-year seedlings are grown on in a shadier nursery bed.
Brian Skeys also grows grasses, among them beautiful Chionochloa rubra. Thanks to a top-tip from him I’ve recently discovered an inspirational planting of this easy-going grass in Devon. Googling Chinonchloa rubra along with The Garden House will transport you to designer Sophie Dixon’s oh so tempting images of what can be achieved planting this grass en masse. Alas, I don’t have an extensive sheltered, sunny slope for such an ambitious planting here, a late summer sortee to Buckland Monachorum will have to do. Meanwhile, I shall enjoy the small group of zero maintainance grasses planted in the sun trap of the yard.