Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!

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August brings …

August brings the sheaves of corn,
Then the harvest home is borne.

When I first glanced at this month’s verse from Sara Coleridge’s The Garden Year I was tempted to start talking about harvesting fruit and other produce from around the garden, but then I looked ahead.  I need to save that for September!

Our garden isn’t full of sheaves or corn and probably never has been.  Prior to the houses being built here in the early 1950s, there were market gardens and, going even further back, it is likely that the land belonged to one of the local ecclesiastical establishments.  Even then I doubt that the monks or whoever were harvesting sheaves of corn here – more likely fruit and veg.

Stipa tenuissima (c) Elizabeth Malone

So for my ‘sheaves of corn’ I’m going to turn my attention to our grasses, many of which are currently in full ‘flower’ and billowing golden around the pond and in the border.  When the fashion for grasses first began, I wasn’t an immediate convert.  I thought that grasses were rather boring and that this was a bit of a fad, especially as garden designers and make-over programmes seemed obsessed with the peculiar black grass Ophiopogon which I still don’t like.  I think that it was probably the old grass borders at RHS Wisley that began to change my mind.  I imagine that it was an exceptionally well-timed visit one autumn that meant we saw the grasses in their full glory. 

Old grass borders at RHS Wisley in 2017 (c) John Malone

We grow a lot of Stipa Tenuissima in our garden, not all of it deliberately!  Stipa Tenuissima self-seeds extremely readily and we find it popping up all over the place.  Little tiny strands of plants can soon become a substantial clump.  It’s also known as ‘pony tails’ but in our household it should be known as ‘cats tails’.  On more than one occasion I’ve glanced down the garden and wondered what Bryggen, our ginger cat, is up to, only to realise that it’s a giant waving Stipa and not his tail!  (He does have an exceptionally bushy, grand tail!)

You can see why I sometimes get confused! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Two years ago I made room for one of my favourite grasses.  It’s another stipa, Stipa Gigantea.  With a name like that, I’m sure you can appreciate why I said ‘make room’ for it!  This is the golden oat grass which looks fabulous against a brilliant blue sky.  Last year I was really disappointed that it only had about one flower head but this year it has rewarded me with a few dozen.  It really has looked spectacular and I’ve learnt that it also has small yellow flowers that dangle like earrings. 

Stipa gigantea in flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

I love the way that grasses also always have a colloquial name – pony tails (Stipa tenuissima), oat grass (Stipa gigantea), switch grass (Panicum), zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis), cloud grass (Agrostis) and quaking grass (Briza) are the ones that we grow and I know about but there are many more.

My most recent acquisition is a Briza which has bell-shaped dangling seed heads which, as its colloquial name suggests, quake in the wind.  It’s only a hardy annual but experts suggest that it will self-seed and so I will have my fingers crossed for next year.  I might even try to save some seed and so it myself if I can work out when to do that.

My cloud grass was grown from seed, from a free packet send by a small nursery with some other plants.  Having not grown it before, I didn’t like to take a chance on following the packet instructions and scattering it where it was due to grow.  Instead I only scattered a small number and am very grateful that I did.  Nothing came up!  So the following spring I scattered some over a small pot and to my amazement they germinated.  I teased them out of the pot and planted them out into the border where a couple survived and went on to flower beautifully.  I sowed the remainder this spring and have a few small plants dotted around so fingers crossed for this year too.  However, they are small and fiddly so I’m not sure that I’ll be ordering more seed or collecting it for next year but let’s see.

Cloud grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

Less of a do-er has been our zebra grass, Miscanthus sinensis, which has now occupied several sites in our garden and struggled in nearly all of them. Could this year be different?  The strappy leaves are certainly taller than previous years so may be all the rain we’ve had has an effect?  It would be lovely if it did finally take off as it is rather fun – not many plants are stripey!

Miscanthus ‘zebrinus’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Another favourite grass by our pond is a Panicum that has red-edged leaves and produces beautiful dark red, almost black flowers / seed heads in the autumn.  It seems perfectly suited to the lower light of September and October and I’ve taken numerous photos of it over the years, still trying to get the perfect shot that sums it up.  It is always a bit of a last blast of summer.  It will then stay with us, providing some structure in the garden during winter, until we cut it back in early spring and start the whole cycle again.

Panicum backlit by autumn sun (c) Elizabeth Malone