5 essential … small grasses

This month’s focus is on small grasses, a group of plants that between them provide a long season of interest, striking focal points, a wonderful foil to other plants and contrast and movement in almost any aspect and planting scheme.  At a time of year when gardens can start to lose their oomph, grasses are invaluable to keep the interest going well into autumn.

Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ is one of the most versatile and lovely grasses around.  In early summer, silvery, reddish-brown flower spikes emerge from the dense mounds of slender, mid-green arching leaves and mature to form clouds of finely textured golden seed heads that last well into autumn. All this and easy too: Deschampsia despitosa ‘Goldtau’ is evergreen, fully hardy and thrives in full sun or partial shade and neutral to acid, dry to moist soil.


Deschampsia Goldtau at Bury Court in Hampshire

Plant front of border in groups at the base of taller perennials for best effect.  Top tip: remove faded flower heads in late winter before new growth appears and cut back any tatty looking foliage to the base at the same time.  Height and spread when flowering: 75cm x 75cm.

One of the smallest, but the most dramatically coloured of all the ornamental grasses is Imperata cylindrical ‘Rubra’, or Japanese blood grass.  It was grown in Japan as a companion to bonsai for more than a century before being brought over to Europe where it got its common name from the intense dark red colour of its leaves. These emerge quite late in the season and are initially lime green with dark red tips, but as summer progresses the colour spreads through the whole leaf and becomes more vivid and translucent.


Imperata cylindrica Rubra planted en masse for maximum effect (Oudolf Field, Somerset)

Colouring is best when grown in full sun, but this slow-growing grass will also grow well in light shade, doing best on good garden soil which does not dry out.  It is happy in containers too, where it will make an eye-catching feature, as long as it is kept well-watered.  Height and spread: 40cm x 30cm.
Gardening tips: cut down to the ground in late February.  In colder areas roots should be protected with a thick mulch of straw or well-rotted compost.

Another strikingly coloured grass is Festuca glauca (Blue fescue), an evergreen species forming neat, spiky clumps of intensely blue/green foliage with dainty blue flower stems in summer that fade to pale straw.  Best colouring develops in full sun on thin, dry soils and good drainage is essential (but make sure to water well whilst plants are establishing).


Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’

Festuca glauca looks particularly good if grown as an accent plant, in groups or individually, in a Mediterranean style planting or gravel garden or in a planter.  Height and spread: 30cm x 20cm.  There are various cultivars available, ‘Intense Blue’ and ‘Elijah Blue’ being amongst the best coloured.
Gardening tips: Remove dead foliage in winter by combing through leaves with the fingers.  This is a fully hardy grass, but may need replacing every few years as it can start to become tatty looking.

Stipa tenuissima (full name Stipa tennuifolia syn. S. tenuissima) is an undemanding, versatile grass that is perfect for adding light and movement to a gravel garden or perennial border and also works well in containers.  Tight upright clumps of pale yellow-green leaves are accompanied in summer by masses of silky, arching silver/green flowers that mature to golden buff and sway with the slightest breeze.


Stipa tenuissima looks very effective in group plantings and is a great addition to a new perennial border where it quickly fills out to provide a wonderful foil for plants such as Achilleas, Salvias, Echinacea and Alliums.
Likes a medium to light, moderately fertile, well-drained soil in full sun.  Height and spread: 30cm x 60cm.
Gardening tips: cut down to the ground in early spring before new foliage appears.  Warning: Stipa tenuissima is very free seeding and will tend to invade adjacent graveled spaces or paved areas with soft pointing.

In contrast to Stipa tenuissima which thrives in full sun and is at its peak in summer, Sesleria autumnalis is a cool season grass for shady areas which puts on new growth in spring and autumn and tends to die back a little in summer.  This summer lull, however, is only the precursor to its autumn glory when the grey/green foliage takes on a fresh lime green hue and the silvery grey flowers open to reveal silky white stamens that shimmer in the breeze.


Evergreen and fully hardy, Seslaria autumnalis provides year round interest and striking focal points when planted along the edge of a woodland path or threaded through a shaded border. It is easy to grow, thriving on alkaline soil, but happy on any and tolerates drought, but not winter waterlogging.
Gardening tips: cut back to the base in early spring to encourage new growth and maintain good shape and habit.


Photos:  ©Janet Bligh

Designer guide to … creating the perfect outdoor room for summer

At this time of year (when the weather allows) many of us want to spend much of our time outside.  With TV programmes such as Channel 4’s Inside Out Homes dedicated to linking the house with the garden it just underlines how important the space beyond the four walls of our house is and what an underused resource a garden can be.  To make that valuable space outside work well there are a number of things to consider.

Key to being comfortable outside (I think) is the creation of cosy spaces to sit in.  Whether using plants or structures such as walls, fences, or trellis screens to achieve this, there’s no doubt that the sense of feeling enclosed results in a more comfortable space to spend time.


Tall plants at Scampston Walled Garden create a sheltered, cosy space for sitting and relaxing

On that theme, many of us are now overlooked by neighbours so planning screening along the boundaries or next to seating areas helps to create a sense of privacy.

pleached trees

Pleached trees are a brilliant tool to screen out neighbours without completely enclosing a space

Whilst it’s lovely to create enclosed spaces around a garden, there’s a balance between feeling cosy and feeling blocked in, so keeping views out of and through the garden are also something to bear in mind.



Taking out a section of hedge in this garden gave my clients a fantastic view of the South Downs to enjoy from their new terrace

When I go to visit potential clients I am often struck by the fact that most gardens have a paved area outside the back door, then some lawn and all the plants are arranged around the boundaries of the garden.  Bring them closer!  There’s nothing nicer than having plants flopping over walls and paving near the house to add colour, softness and scent.

Alton garden

Planting next to the house and terrace bring colour and seasonal interest to this Hampshire garden all year round

If plants are used to soften paths, there needs to be enough space to allow for that, so the paths should be built at a reasonable width (I’d say 900mm as a minimum without plants overhanging, but ideally I’d go much wider to allow enough space for 2 people to walk side by side comfortably).

plants on paths

The scale of entertaining spaces is very important – especially with the popularity of large outdoor sofas – so it’s important to ensure that paved areas are large enough to accommodate seating and tables and chairs.


Large furniture needs plenty of space

Permanent outdoor furniture is great!  It definitely encourages us to get into the garden more – even if just for a quick cuppa in the sun without the palaver of having to carry a seat outside specially.  So create spaces to leave seats and benches in key positions around the garden and I guarantee they will be used all year round, not just in summer.

If space allows, it’s a bonus to have areas around the garden to enjoy at different times of the day.  Evening is a key time for most of us to unwind and enjoy the late sun so I always try to design even just a small space for my clients to sit out at the end of the day.

evening sun

This circular seating area was built into the flower bed as it’s exactly where my clients can enjoy the late evening sun in summer

Whilst we tend to focus on sitting in the sun in the UK – with it being such a rare treat! – it’s also important to create spaces for shade.  And that may be something as simple as having a space under a tree to have lunch on a hot summer’s day.


shady tree

This tree seat provides somewhere to sit all year round and valuable shade in hot weather

I always encourage clients to include garden lighting in a new scheme – not just to create a lovely atmosphere when the sun has gone down, but to make it safe to navigate steps and paths around the garden.



These subtle step lights built into the wall provide a safe route around the garden at night

As well as sofas, hot tubs, pizza ovens, firepits and even outdoor fireplaces, another recent trend is the addition of an outdoor kitchen to the garden.  Moving on from the simple built-in barbecue, many companies now offer something far more extravagant – all-singing all-dancing outdoor kitchens complete with fridge, work surfaces, gas barbecue, kitchen sink ….

Gaze Burvill outdoor kitchen

The A La Carte Linear outdoor kitchen by Gaze Burvill is a great example of how far we’ve moved on from a simple barbecue outside!

It’s definitely true that the Outdoor Room concept has come a long way, even in the last 10 years, and gone are the days for a lot of us being satisfied to cook a few sausages over charcoal and eat them from the comfort of a deckchair!!


Photo credits:  Janet Bligh, Gaze Burvill

5 essential … plants for a tropical look

Luckily for UK gardeners who fancy going for a tropical look, steamy tropical weather is not required to achieve it.  Dramatic and contrasting foliage is the key to creating an exotic look with a long season of interest and there are both sun and shade loving plants that fit the bill.  Here are a few of both.

Nothing does the hot tropical look better than Cannas, but despite their steamy looks they can be grown easily in any area of the UK provided they are given winter protection. Most Cannas grow to an average of 1.5m tall and have striking, architectural leaves and fiery flowers in hot reds, oranges, yellows and pinks.

canna leaf c.Firgrove Photographic

Cannas are extremely versatile plants and have a lot to recommend them in addition to their good looks, not least the fact that despite their height they are sturdy enough not to require any staking.  They also have a long flowering period, from late June to October, are happy on any soil as long as they get plenty of feed and will tolerate drought conditions as well as being happy in standing water.  Finally, Cannas will flourish in both sun and shade, but for best leaf and flower colour they should be grown in partial to full shade to prevent fading.

Canna c.Firgrove Photographic

There is a wide range of Cannas to choose from with leaf colours varying from plain green or deep red/purple through a range of striped colour combinations.  All are equally happy in the border or patio planters.  Canna ‘Durban’ [also now known as ‘Phasion’] is very popular owing to the dazzling effect created by its leaves which are variously striped in green, purple, orange and pink and topped by bright orange flowers.  I love it!
Growing tips: Cannas require minimal attention during the growing season, but they do need winter protection. Lift the rhizomes as soon as the first frosts blacken the leaves, pot up and keep just slightly moist in a frost free shed or greenhouse.  Never deadhead Cannas as new flower shoots emerge from the dead flower heads.
Curious fact: Cannas were originally grown in the Americas for food and the starchy rhizomes are still eaten in some parts of Bolivia and Colombia.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’ is a tall, elegant, grass which is very similar to the more widely known Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’ (aka ‘Zebra Grass’), only this variety is more upright and harder to find!  Like Zebrinus, it has unusual creamy yellow bands on its leaves making it a really striking plant to grow [NB: these bands are temperature dependent and usually only appear after mid-summer]. Silky panicles of pale pink flowers appear in August to September turning to silvery seed heads that last well through winter.

Miscanthus strictus

Miscanthus Strictus grows up to 2m+ in height, making an excellent specimen plant and also looking very dramatic grown in groups towards the back of the border.  The pale stripes can suffer from scorch if grown in full sun so this grass is best grown in light shade where it makes a perfect backdrop for Cannas.
Growing tips: This is a fully hardy deciduous grass and should be cut back to the ground in late winter before new growth appears.

Fatsia Japonica is an oldie but goodie, and this hardy, handsome, tropical looking evergreen shrub continues to enjoy well-deserved popularity.


The huge, glossy, palmate leaves provide instant architectural interest and contrast in any aspect from full sun to deep shade while in autumn exotic looking panicles of creamy white, spherical flowers are produced, often followed by round black fruits.

fatsia variegated

Other varieties of Fatsia include Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’ (no surprises for guessing it has variegated leaves!) and a newer very attractive variety called Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ which has unusual speckled white markings on the leaves.
Garden tips: Frost hardy and extremely easy to care for, Fatsia Japonica requires little or no pruning or attention of any kind once established.  Its only requirement is adequate space as it has a potential height and spread of 4m, although it can be kept happily to about half of this with regular pruning.

Another plant grown as much for its foliage as its flowers is Euphorbia Mellifera – the bright green leaves with their central white stripe contrast brilliantly with those of Fatsia Japonica.

Euphorbia mellifera

This magnificent Euphorbia has a naturally domed form (up to 2m high & wide) and makes a strikingly tropical statement in the border in full sun or partial shade.  The leaves are arranged in whorls around stiff stems that produce bronze tinted, honey scented flowers at their tips in spring (hence its common name of ‘honey spurge’).
Garden tips: Euphorbia Mellifera prefers a well-drained soil, will thrive best in a fairly sunny, sheltered spot and may require winter protection in colder areas.  Cut back faded flower stems in autumn.

Melianthus major is a plant with quite stunningly beautiful foliage that make it a really wonderful specimen plant for a sunny tropical planting.  The leaves emerge quite late in the spring, but are well worth waiting for: up to 50cm long, they are a lovely soft glaucous grey/green in colour with stunningly crisp serrations at the edges.

Melianthus major

In hot summers curious bronze red tubular flowers may appear between May and July, but it’s really the foliage that’s the star turn.  After the spring growth there’s a bit of a lull until late summer when the plant puts on another spurt and can reach a height of 1.5-2m.
Growing tips: Prefers a sunny aspect on reasonably fertile, well-drained soil and a good mulch of organic material such as well-rotted manure in spring .  Although it is a shrub, treat Melianthus major as a perennial for best results, cutting the stems back to two or three buds in spring to prevent it getting leggy.  It is not fully frost hardy and requires protection from frost with a dry straw or bracken mulch in late autumn.  If it does get knocked back by frost, don’t panic!  Chances are it will reappear in spring if the winter isn’t too harsh.

5 essential … evergreen shrubs to clothe a wall or fence

Many shrubs adapt very well to growing against walls and fences and, once trained in, are usually easier to manage than climbers which can quickly outgrow their allotted space.  Here are five evergreens that lend themselves very well to being wall-trained and between them provide seasonal interest throughout the year.

Ceanothus (or ‘Californian lilac’) make excellent candidates for growing against a sunny fence or wall as they benefit from the protection provided against cold, drying winds.  One of the most strikingly beautiful is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ which produces a dazzling display or intensely dark blue flowers for several weeks in May and June, perfectly offset by the small, glossy dark green leaves.

Ceanothus © Firgrove Photographic

The bushy growth provides excellent screening for fences and walls and a perfect backdrop for a sunny border.  Ceanothus perform best on fertile, well-drained soil and benefit from a good mulch of organic matter after pruning.  To keep in shape, trim side shoots back by one third after flowering.

Ceanothus ©Firgrove Photographic

Some shrubs are definitely shown off to best advantage when wall trained and Garrya eliptica ‘James Roof’ is one of these.  Throughout the year, its glossy, wavy edged, dark green leaves make an elegant foil to other flowering shrubs when it is planted at the back of a border, but make sure it is planted where it can be fully appreciated in winter when the long, silken tassels of silvery flowers that cover it from December to February make it a really eye-catching architectural feature.  It can grow to 4m x 4m and looks best when given generous room to spread.

Garrya elliptica ©RHS

Happy in sun or shade and on any reasonably fertile soil as long as it is well-drained, it simply requires pruning after flowering to remove any dead or straggly growth.  Top tip: plant deciduous clematis nearby and allow to scramble through the Garrya branches to provide summer colour.

Itea ilicifolia is also a tassel bearer, but its striking greenish white, vanilla scented catkins appear in mid-summer to early autumn. It will tolerate shade quite well, but prefers a south or west facing aspect where its shiny, holly-like foliage looks lovely throughout the year with new growth in spring beginning in beautiful shades of red.  Young plants in particular benefit from the protection of a warm fence or wall as they may be hard hit by cold, drying winds and require protection from frost in exposed areas.

Itea ©Firgrove Photographic

Plant in any fertile, well-drained soil and mulch around young plants in autumn.  Grows to 4m x 3m in height and spread, but can be pruned to size.

Osmanthus burkwoodii performs happily when grown against a wall or fence in sun or shade where its glossy, dark green leaves make a neat backdrop, but it is particularly useful for bringing light and interest to shady spots in April and May, when the highly scented, white, jasmine like flowers appear.

osmanthus burkwoodii ©Janet Bligh

It will cover an area of roughly 3m x 3m and is a very easy going plant being fully hardy, not fussy about soil type and requiring only light pruning with shears after flowering to maintain its shape.

Gardeners have had a long and very literally painful love/hate relationship with Pyracanthas, but when properly trained and pruned they make a wonderful architectural feature against a house or garden wall.  Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ has dense clusters of tiny white flowers in May which are followed by bright orange berries in autumn/winter that are a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.


It is very versatile, being fully hardy and happy on any reasonable soil and in any aspect apart from very dense shade (but the more sun, the more berries).  Height and spread: 2.5m x 2.5m.
Top tip: Prune in late summer shortening all side shoots that arise from the main framework and stopping just short of the clusters of berries (usually about two to three leaves from the base of the side shoot).  Wear thick gloves!

Top tip for all wall trained shrubs: the area next to a wall is usually very dry so plant shrubs at least 40cm from the base of the wall and make sure to prepare the soil well before planting.  Remove any rubble, incorporate plenty of well-rotted organic matter and water well to establish.

Picture credits: Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, RHS