Gardening with grasses

Hakonechloa macra and Ophiopogon from Nic Wilson

Hakonechloa macra and Ophiopogon combine to create this stunning border
Image: dogwooddays

Do your borders lack colour, height and movement throughout the year? Professional garden designer Nic Wilson of dogwooddays recently redesigned the beds in her own back garden to striking effect. Her secret weapon? Grasses.

By integrating their elegant structure and interesting foliage she’s transformed her family’s outside space. Here are Nic’s favourite grasses, where to plant them, and how to make them sing…

Are ornamental grasses easy to grow?

Stipa tennuissima from dogwooddays

Drifts of Stipa tennuissima blow gently in the breeze
Image: dogwooddays

I particularly appreciate the versatility of grasses in a design – they can be used in so many different ways, aspects and situations. You can sow them from seed or buy them as plants for more instant results. Just choose the right grass for your border and watch them thrive.

When I changed my beds earlier this year, I decided to use grasses as the structural basis of the new design. I planted elegant Deschampsia cespitosa towards the back for height, drifts of Stipa tenuissima through the centre to create sinuous curves, and annual grasses like Briza maxima along the front.

Now it’s early September, the deschampsia has developed golden seedheads that mingle beautifully with my Verbena bonariensis, and the briza heads are gently rippling in the light autumn breeze. The yellow and oaty brown shades soften the brighter tones – a contrasting purple and orange colour scheme that includes:

The best grasses for sun

Different coloured of grasses in a garden planting scheme

Copper coloured grasses stylishly complement perennials in this border
Image: dogwooddays

Whether your garden is baked by the sun throughout the day or has shady areas under trees where little will grow, there are grasses that will cope. For sunny borders and hot, dry gravel gardens, little can beat Festuca glauca with its mound-forming blue-green spiky foliage. My festuca was grown from seed and I love to combine it with silvery lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) and purple salvia (such as Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’) which also thrive in these baking conditions.

Carex testacea is a stalwart in my gravel garden as, unlike many varieties of carex, it prefers dry conditions and the foliage turns the brightest copper colour in full sun. It combines well with Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’ and Achillea ‘Terracotta’.

The best grasses for shade

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' from T&M

A spectacular feature plant at the front of borders or winter containers
Featured: Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ from T&M

At the other end of the spectrum, Anemanthele lessoniana prefers dry soils in sun or shade. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ also copes with dry shade and Melica uniflora ‘Alba’ (or wood melic) thrives at the dappled edge of the woodland canopy.

Damp partial shade creates the ideal conditions for carex and acorus. I tend to favour Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ for its golden yellow variegated leaves and Carex oshimensis ‘Everest’, whose evergreen, white and dark green, variegated foliage makes a real statement in your border.

Annual grasses

Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty'

Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’
Image: dogwooddays

Sowing annual grasses is an inexpensive way to add interest to beds and borders, or create attractive container displays.

I love the tactile flowerheads and deep chocolate-purple foliage of Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’ which looks splendid in autumn containers as a backdrop to dahlia and salvia. Another favourite, Briza maxima, is easily raised from seed in situ in the border. Autumn sowings work well and should grow on strongly the following spring.

Grasses for screens

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln Gold’ from T&M

Reaching a height of about 1m, this brightly coloured grass makes an excellent screen
Featured: Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln Gold’ from T&M

Taller grasses make attractive screens to separate different parts of the garden or to hide utility areas. Try Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ which forms an informal screen up to 1.8 metres in height, with arching reddish stems fading through beige to warm browns as the season progresses. Calamagrostis looks fabulous in the winter too and can be cut to the ground in early spring before growth resumes for the next year.

Another tall specimen, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’, is topped with silver plumes of flowers in September and October which persist throughout the winter, adding texture and interest.

For slightly lower screens, I have two favourites. Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln Gold’ is a great choice with vivid yellow-gold foliage. Looking for something a little more exotic? Try the flowered plumes of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’. They grow to 1.2m in height, floating above striking bright green leaves striped with horizontal cream bands.

How to plant grasses

Carex testacea and pittosporum planting scheme from dogwooddays

Copper-coloured Carex testacea and pittosporum beautifully complement this simple path
Image: dogwooddays

Perennial grasses are best planted in spring or autumn. Those that originate from warmer climates like miscanthus and pennisetum should be planted in late spring so they can come into growth before flowering in mid-summer. Deschampsia, stipa and festuca, on the other hand, originate from cooler climates and are better planted in autumn to give them the chance to become well established before beginning to grow in late winter.

As we head into autumn, September is the ideal time to plant the following grasses alongside your crocus and snowdrop bulbs:

Ornamental grasses add colour, structure, texture and all year round interest to beds and borders. But they really come into their own in the late autumn sun – the best time to enjoy their gently fading colours and elegant forms. 

Late summer sophistication with rudbeckia 

Photo of Rudbeckia 'Savannah Mixed' mix in Nic Wilson's garden

Nic has planted Rudbeckia ‘Savannah Mixed’ alongside grasses in her own garden
Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

Midsummer is a time of plenty in the garden with roses blooming, sweet peas in their prime and borders a riot of colour. But as summer progresses and cottage garden stalwarts begin to fade, there are some fantastic late-flowering plants ready to carry the torch into autumn. 

We asked professional garden designer, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays, to share her thoughts on rudbeckia, one of our favourite ways to add a splash of late summer sophistication to any garden.

Prairie-style planting

Prairie style planting

Prairie style planting displays provide long-lasting colour and attract pollinating insects
Image: Lukasz Stefanski

It’s at this time of year that North American perennials and annuals really come into their own. Unlike meadows in the UK which generally peak at midsummer, North American grassland reaches its zenith around late summer or early autumn, making prairie flower displays ideal to keep the colour in the garden going well past the summer equinox. The daisy flowers of echinacea, helenium, aster and rudbeckia are also fabulous sources of nectar for pollinating insects.

Best varieties of rudbeckia

Red rudbeckia flower in the garden

The striking red of this rudbeckia flower is a glorious addition to any planting scheme
Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

Rudbeckia (commonly known as coneflower or black-eyed Susan) was named after Olof Rudbeck (senior), the Swedish Professor of Medicine and polymath who founded the Uppsala Botanical Garden in 1655.

All rudbeckias prefer an open sunny spot with soil that has been improved with organic matter. They can be planted in spring or autumn, or sown from seed. Charismatic Rudbeckia hirta is a valuable annual to add to container displays and to the late summer border, often flowering up until the first frosts. There are many annual cultivars to suit different colour schemes:

One of the most popular perennial rudbeckia varieties is R. fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ – a robust and reliable flower that likes to be kept moist in summer. The open yellow petals contrast with the dark central eye, making it a striking bloom, especially when planted in swathes through grasses or with other prairie flowers like echinacea and heleniums.

Sophisticated ‘savannah mixed’

Rudbeckia 'Savannah Mixed' from Thompson & Morgan

Opening in gentle lime green, petals mature to wine-red and burnt orange as summer progresses
Image: Thompson & Morgan’s new half-hardy annual R. ‘Savannah Mixed’

This year I’ve planted Thompson & Morgan’s new and exclusive, half-hardy annual R. ‘Savannah Mixed’ from their own breeding programme. Beautiful colour-changing double flowers with petals in shades of yellow-green, wine-red and burnt orange, ‘Savannah Mixed’ evokes the subtle colours of the grassy African plains and brings real elegance to late summer displays. It looks best planted en masse in containers or borders, where the flowers combine to create a sophisticated scheme.

In my garden, I’m planting R. ‘Savannah Mixed’ with grasses (Briza maxima, Deschampsia cespitosa and Stipa tenuissima) and with other late-bloomers like Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’. The muted lime, burgundy and copper tones of the rudbeckia add touches of colour without disturbing the soft mood created by the grass seed heads gently swaying in the breeze. And as the flowers age the colours deepen, providing an effortless transition to autumn in your late summer borders.

Selection of rudbeckia images from Nic Wilson from dogwooddays

Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

How to prepare your garden for a holiday

Car packed full of holiday luggage

Plan ahead to help your garden survive your summer holiday
Image: Africa Studio

You’ve invested blood, sweat and tears into your garden, so it’s perfectly natural to worry about leaving your plants while you enjoy a break from the day-to-day routine. 

We asked garden designer, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays, for her professional advice on how to keep things looking their best for when you return. Here are six practical suggestions to help prepare your garden before you go on holiday:

1. General care

Closeup of lawnmower and cutting grass

Cut and edge the lawn before you leave
Image: kurhan

I’m looking forward to some time away to relax with my family this summer, but at the back of my mind I can feel a niggling anxiety – how will my plants cope while I’m away? Will the lettuces bolt and the sweet peas set seed? How will the dahlias survive if there’s a heatwave? Last year we returned to find that wasps had devoured almost every greengage. Unfortunately, the whole crop was ruined.

To keep things tidy while you’re away, take care of a few general tasks before you leave. Weed borders and paths, and cut the grass in any areas that you’re not growing long for wildlife. Make sure that any top-heavy plants are staked to avoid high winds causing damage to stems while you’re gone.

2. Containers

Pots and containers in Nic Wilson's dogwooddays garden

Group pots and containers together in a shaded spot
Image: dogwooddays

Group all your containers together in a shady spot and provide automatic watering via an irrigation system. Failing that, sit the containers in trays of water.

Take down any hanging baskets and place them with your other containers in the shade. Terracotta pots dry out more quickly than plastic ones, so make sure they’re well watered before you leave.

3. Greenhouse

Stock image of a greenhouse with door open

Nic leaves her greenhouse open while she’s away
Image: a40757

Ensure that your greenhouse plants have adequate shade and that the windows, vents and doors are open during the day. With a small greenhouse like mine, I leave the doors and windows open when we go away in the summer to avoid my plants overheating.

Water all your plants well and stand the pots on capillary matting so they can take up water slowly from the base reservoir. Plants can also be watered with an upside-down drink bottle with a drip end attached, or from a self-watering globe, or a mighty dripper.

4. Fruit and vegetables

Basket of harvested plums from dogwooddays

Nic harvests as many plums as possible before she leaves
Image: dogwooddays

Pick as much as you can before you go – our last job will be to harvest, eat and freeze our ‘Opal’ plums if they ripen in time. Ask a friend or neighbour to visit every few days to harvest crops so the plants will continue to be productive.

By thoroughly watering and mulching the beds before you leave, you can make sure that the soil stays moist for as long as possible. Protect your crops with specialist netting to avoid damage from pigeons and cabbage white butterflies.

5. Flowers

Image of Happy Single Date dahlias

Nic removes the heads from her ‘Happy Single Date’ dahlias before setting off
Image: dogwooddays

Summer-flowering plants like dahlias, sweetpeas, osteospermum and zinnias might be covered in blooms now, but these will have faded by the time you return and the plants will be starting to set seed. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, remove open and spent flowers before you leave and feed plants to encourage a flush of new blooms upon your return.

6. Biosecurity

Oranges infected with CVC, a disease caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa

Oranges infected with CVC, a disease caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa
Image: Alf Ribeiro

Don’t bring back plant material back from your holidays, for the long-term health of your own garden and all plants across the UK. Diseases like Xylella have the potential to cause devastation to a huge range of cultivated and wild plants, so return with photos and memories, not with the plants themselves.

 

Basil bonanza

closeup of basil leaves against a wooden table

Discover how to cultivate this fast-growing annual
Image: isak55

Early summer is the ideal time to sow basil seeds for late summer pizzas, salads and pasta dishes. In fact, professional garden designer Nic Wilson of dogwooddays says one of her favourite jobs of the year is collecting armfuls of basil leaves to blitz for pesto, filling her kitchen with the sweet, spicy smell of this fast-growing annual.

We asked Nic to share five of her favourite basil plants to grow from seed, along with some insider tips to guarantee success!

Five best basils to grow at home

There really is a basil to tempt every palate and suit every garden. Some of my stalwarts are chosen for colour, as well as flavour and aroma – including the sweet leaves of ‘Classico’, the dark purple foliage of ‘Crimson King’, and the liquorice aroma of ‘Siam Queen’. Here are my five all time favourites:

1. Basil ‘Pesto’

jar of green pesto

Nic loves making pesto from her homegrown basil leaves
Image: New Africa

Although I’ve been growing basil to use in pesto for many years, this is the first year I’ve grown ‘Pesto’ itself. This variety has been especially selected to grow well in UK temperatures and has a strong flavour perfect for a peppery pasta dressing. Flushed with delicate purple, the leaves are carried on deep purple stems. The flowers are a pretty pale pink, so it makes a great ornamental choice too. Whether it’s grown in containers in a sunny spot or in the vegetable patch, basil ‘Pesto’ will add a touch of spice to any garden.

2. Basil ‘Lemonade’

Basil 'Lemonade' from Thompson & Morgan

The perfect addition to your glass of Pimm’s
Image: RHS/Karen Robbirt

This variety is high on my list to try next year. It has a lemon sherbet flavour making it perfect for adding to fruit salads and summer drinks, as well as adding a citrus tang to savoury dishes. Not all basil varieties thrive in the changeable UK weather – but ‘Lemonade’, like ‘Pesto’ is tolerant of British summers and can be grown successfully outside once the plants are established and hardened off.

3. Basil ‘Siam Queen’

Basil 'Siam Queen' from Thompson & Morgan

Bring your Thai curries to life with homegrown herbs
Image: Thompson & Morgan

This Thai basil is a wonderful ingredient for spicy curries and soups. We grow ‘Siam Queen’ in pots in the greenhouse alongside Kaffir lime, chillies and peppers as the base for summer Thai green curries. Slightly taller than sweet basil at 45cm, ‘Siam Queen’ has larger, more elongated leaves and a spicy liquorice flavour. A little goes a long way in salads, and it’s one of the best varieties for cooking.

4. Basil ‘Crimson King’

Two packets of Crimson King from Thompson & Morgan.

The beautiful colour of ‘Crimson King’ brightens up any greenhouse or garden
Image: dogwooddays

As soon as the tiny seedlings emerged, I fell in love with this basil. Not only does ‘Crimson King’ have a sweet flavour and softly cupped leaves, but the deep plum-coloured foliage means it’s a beautiful ornamental plant to grow. Some of my ‘Crimson King’ will stay in the greenhouse over the summer, but I’ll also dot some around the herb garden to add a splash of colour between my parsley and thyme.

5. Basil ‘Christmas’

Basil 'Christmas' from Thompson & Morgan

Basil ‘Christmas’ is edible and ornamental
Image: Thompson & Morgan

Basil Christmas is a new variety – a cross between Genovese and Thai basil. It’s another great addition to both edible and ornamental gardens with glossy foliage and beautiful spikes of purple flowers that are a magnet for pollinating insects. With a spicy mulled wine flavour, ‘Christmas’ makes a delicious pesto that can be frozen and added to festive pasta to bring a taste of summer to dark winter days.

Top tips for growing basil

Pot of Basil 'Pesto' ready to prick out and pot on. Photo from dogwooddays

Basil ‘Pesto’ ready to prick out and pot on
Image: dogwooddays

Sow your basil seeds on peat-free seed compost and cover lightly with vermiculite or sieved compost. Water and place in a propagator or cover with a plastic bag. Germination should take around 14-21 days. When seedlings have developed true leaves, prick out into small pots and grow on. Eventually the basil plants will need to be potted on into 20cm containers. For outdoor basil, harden plants off over a 10-14 day period and plant outside after all risk of frost has passed.

Slugs and snails love to munch on basil seedlings, so I bring mine indoors at night until they’re large enough to withstand a little nibbling. Basil dislikes drying out, but also hates wet roots, so aim to water plants in the morning. Pinch out regularly to keep your growing plants bushy and vigorous.

 

Perfect for pollinators

Image of a butterfly pollinating purple flowers

Give your garden a pollinator friendly makeover
Image: Dogwooddays

Planting for pollinating insects has never been more important. As insect populations decline across the world, we need to find ways to help these essential invertebrates, for our future as well as theirs.

Gardeners can play a vital part in this recovery. With over 400,000 hectares of garden habitat across the UK, filling our gardens with plants that provide food sources for butterflies, bees and other pollinating insects can have a significant effect.

We asked garden designer, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays, for her thoughts. Here are eight simple suggestions to help make your outside space perfect for pollinators:

1. Add pollinator-friendly trees

closeup of apple blossom from Dogwooddays Nic Wilson

Beautiful blossom on Nic’s espaliered apple tree is a great source of pollen
Image: Dogwooddays

Trees provide important sources of pollen and nectar for insects, especially bees, as they have many flowers close together. Flowering cherries like Prunus ‘The Bride’ and Prunus ‘Little Pink Perfection’ are ideal small garden trees, reaching two metres at maturity.

Fruit trees also offer masses of spring flowers and have the advantage of a delicious harvest. My family love the honeyed fruits from our greengage tree and we also grow several apples as cordons and espaliers. With a dwarfing rootstock and a trained form, fruit can be grown in even the smallest of spaces.

2. Consider flower shape

Campanula medium (Mixed) from Thompson & Morgan

Pollinators love Campanula bells planted en masse in blues, whites and pinks.
Image: Campanula medium (Mixed) from Thompson & Morgan

Choose cultivars with single blooms as the pollen and nectar producing organs in double flowers have often been transformed into extra petals. With single-flowered perennials like Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and Echinacea purpurea, you can fill your garden with food for native insects.

Growing different flower shapes such as bell-shaped (campanula, bluebells), tubular (heather, verbena), and flag (pea family) will attract a range of pollinators.

3. Plant in swathes or drifts

Salvia 'Hot Lips' collection from Thompson & Morgan

Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ looks stunning when planted in swathes
Image: Salvia Hot Lips collection from Thompson & Morgan

Insects use less energy if their food sources are close together, so planting in swathes not only creates a sophisticated effect, it also makes feeding more efficient. For a late summer combination, fill containers with a collection of salvias like Salvia ‘Hot Lips’, ‘Cherry Lips’ and ‘Amethyst Lips’.

Alternatively, plant intertwining drifts of Eryngium planum ‘Blue Hobbit’, Echinacea ‘Rainbow Marcella’ and Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’. The contrasting blue and orange tones will create energy in the border and the pollinators will love this late food source.

4. Fill gaps with pollinator-friendly annuals

Stock image of red and yellow rudbeckia

Pollinator-friendly annuals like rudbeckia are a striking way to fill gaps in borders
Image: Del Boy

Sowing annuals is a flexible way to provide a food source for pollinators as you can vary the mix each year based on which flowers are most popular with the insects. A few of my favourite pollinator-friendly annuals include: borage, calendula, Cerinthe major, snapdragon and rudbeckia.

5. Avoid chemicals

Defenders slug trap from Thompson & Morgan

A re-useable slug trap can be used again and again
Image: Defenders slug trap from Thompson & Morgan

With increasing evidence about the effects of chemicals on wildlife, especially insects, we now know how important it is to avoid chemical control in the garden.

Use physical methods to control unwanted pests like squashing or dislodging aphids with jets of water, or using copper tape and wool pellets to discourage slugs. Try biological solutions like nematodes for slugs, vine weevils and thrips. Encourage ladybirds into your garden to eat aphids rather than reaching for chemical sprays. As Alys Fowler recently wrote in The Guardian: “these are chemicals that silence the soil.”

6. Think seasonally

Aster novi-belgii 'Dandy' from Thompson & Morgan

Michaelmas daisies provide a stunning food source right through until late October
Image: Aster novi-belgii ‘Dandy’ from Thompson & Morgan

Pollinators need food sources from early spring into late autumn, so plant with the seasons in mind. Spring flowering perennials such as lungwort, cowslips, honesty and flowering currant are ideal early nectar sources and autumn stalwarts like Michaelmas daisies, dahlias and sedum offer food when many other flowers have faded.

7. Create a herb garden

Herbs in a plant pot in a garden

Plant herbs in pots on a patio or balcony if you don’t have a large garden
Image: pixfix

Planting herbs in a sunny spot is sure to bring in the pollinating insects. My lavender is covered with bees and butterflies in the summer months, while the chives, marjoram and thyme all attract pollinating insects and provide me with harvests for salads, soups and pizza.

8. Make a mini-meadow

Mini meadow in raised beds along a border

Contain your mini meadow in a raised bed if you prefer a bowling green style lawn
Image: Dave Head

One of the most exciting projects we’ve undertaken in the garden this year is to leave a small strip of lawn long and plant wildflower plugs to create a mini-meadow. Bare patches of ground can be sown with a meadow seed mix, but areas of long grass should be planted with wildflower plugs or container-grown plants. We can’t wait to see what pollinating insects are attracted to our mini-meadow later in the year.

By putting nature at the heart of gardening, we can enjoy the beauty of plants and animals working together in healthy ecosystems, knowing that our gardens are contributing to the wellbeing of the living planet that we all inhabit.

 

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