Gardening: Let the grass grow

By Leigh Bramwell


Call me mean-spirited, but there's often a tiny part of me that's relieved when I notice large areas of civic landscaping that have turned up their toes.

It's just so comforting to know that even the hugely experienced and extravagantly budgeted among us make bad decisions, or simply get caught out by a recalcitrant plant that promised the earth, so to speak, but didn't deliver.

Two big roundabouts on a new piece of highway near here are a case in point. They were originally planted in Carex comans bronze - a good choice, I said derisively to The Partner, because bronze carex already look half-dead so when they finally kick the bucket, the transition won't be so noticeable.

Unlike the economically challenged among us, the landscape team was able to plant them en masse and I have to admit they looked good at the start. But, true to form, they gradually turned from bronze to blonde to dead and were shortly thereafter replaced with a combination of two of my least favourite ground-cover plants, griselinia and coprosma.

"Those won't die, more's the pity," I said to The Partner, and I have so far been proved right.

But back to grasses. I used to be a big fan years ago in the river stone era but when I realised that my favourite, Carex Frosted Curls, hated living in the Far North, I gave up on them. Fortunately, I trashed the river stones at the same time.

The affair was rekindled when I was introduced to Carex secta, a big grass (a metre by a metre) that promised to stabilise our stream bank, enjoy the damp and survive occasional frosts. This hardy, evergreen native proved ideal for the purpose and survives to this day.

So now I've got the hang of grasses. Instead of planting whatever you like, plant whatever likes you and your location. Can't imagine why I didn't think of it sooner.

That sorted, I've been boning up on designing with grasses.

Yes, you can emulate the civic landscapers and just mass plant a zillion of one kind, or you can figure out how to use three or four different species and to add other plants and hard landscaping elements to get a look that's somewhere between a natural landscape and an expensive design put together by a talented landscape architect.

The sloping bank beside our driveway was calling out for attention, so The Partner put in some hard landscaping elements (railway sleepers and rocks) and then mixed and matched a variety of grasses. He started with a few leftover Carex comans from a failed garden elsewhere on the property, just because he didn't want to waste them and, to my surprise, they thrived.

"Gravelly soil, lots of sun, dry as a bone - they think they're in Central Otago," he explained. For insurance, he added the Aussie winner, Lomandra Little Pal, whose fine, shiny and very bright green foliage is a good foil, a couple of the larger Lomandra tanika and Poa cita, a sun-loving silver tussock that grows to about 60cm x 60cm and is perfectly happy in average soil so long as it's not too damp. It makes feathery flower heads in summer.

There are also Dianella hiding in there, happily producing lovely purple berries for a change of texture, and on the other side of the railway sleeper wall the native iris, Libertia ixioides, pokes up its delicate little flowers.

I'm not the only one who is rekindling a flagging relationship with ornamental grasses. They were big at the Melbourne Flower Show earlier this year and the Americans love them, too.

According to the marketing director of a big producer of ornamental grasses in the US, there has been an explosion of demand for them, particularly American natives. It's part of the trend towards more natural landscape designs and an awareness that plants can be used to solve specific landscape issues and provide great aesthetics at the same time.

So, on the list for our next section of driveway bank, are gossamer grass, toe toe and other wispy, waving things, teamed with more chunky species like kangaroo paw and Crososmia (commonly known as Montbretia and considered very naughty - see below) and possibly some interesting kind of cycad. Just no river stones.

Crocosmia

With their hot, fiery colours, Crocosmia species and cultivars are gorgeous things, but they are often eschewed in New Zealand gardens because of the troublesome Crocosmia crocosmiiflora, commonly known as montbretia.

But not all Crocosmia are like montbretia, so you'll find some you can plant without guilt.

Crocosmia masoniorum is an attractive species with orange flowers that grows to about 80cm high and a few cultivars have been bred from this.

Crocosmia Lucifer has the trademark flame-coloured flowers and reaches a height of about 120cm. It has long, strap-like foliage like an iris, and the flowers are produced in summer and often flower into autumn.

They like full sun or partial shade and free-draining soil with organic compost added. Deadhead them when flowering is finished to prevent seeding, and leave the foliage to die back or turn yellow before cutting back. Big clumps can be divided in autumn.

- Hamilton News

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