Glorious Goodnestone, Part II: Graceful Grasses

Grasses on the terrace, Goodnestone Park, Sept 2013

I have to admit I am not terribly well informed when it comes to grasses. My vocabulary extends about as far as Stipa and Dechampsia but not far beyond, so those of you who don’t care for Latin names can read on without fear of being bamboozled.

Sadly, neither of our gardens offers the space or conditions for prairie-style swathes of swaying monocots. However my general ignorance doesn’t prevent me from admiring the grace and diversity of this huge, ancient plant group.

Grasses have arrived fashionably late on the gardening scene. Initially they were made popular by the great perennial pioneers of the midcentury, notably the German plantsman Karl Foerster. More recently, the work of John Brookes, Oehme and van Sweden, Piet Oudolf and a host of other designers and nurserymen has brought grasses firmly into the mainstream.

The Gravel Garden, Goodnestone Park, Sept 2013

At Goodnestone Park grasses are an equally new arrival, occupying a gravel garden that was created on the site of an old tennis court. This is one feature Jane Austen would not have been familiar with during her frequent visits to her sister-in-law’s house. One can’t help wondering what she might have made of it. The setting, amongst mature trees, creates the impression of a natural woodland clearing rather than an open prairie, helping it to blend seamlessly with the rest of the garden.

Whilst grasses offer a long season of interest, they really come into their own from mid summer through to the end of winter, when the dry, fractured clumps need razing to the ground. The photographs below, taken this April and late September, illustrate the complete transformation that occurs in the gravel garden over a period of 6 months, from bare gravel to towering abundance. Most grasses enjoy a dryish, exposed position with soil of average fertility, although one or two prefer a little more moisture and shade. All, apart from the reeds and rushes, detest being waterlogged and will rot away promptly during a wet winter.

The Gravel Garden in Spring, Goodnestone Park, Sept 2013

The gravel garden in spring…….

The Gravel Garden, Goondestone Park, Sept 2013

….and again in late September.

Marvellous as grasses are, on their own they can be a little monotonous. Careful companion planting improves the texture and colour of the scheme at Goodnestone. Sanguisorbas with their pill-shaped flower heads in white, pink and burgundy match taller grasses for their stature and perpetual movement. Billowing in the breeze they look like a swarm of angry bees.

Sanguisorba in the Gravel Garden, Goodnestone Park, Sept 2013

Larger flowers come in the form of bright yellow heleniums and pinky-purple echinaceas, true prairie dwellers that always look at home in a natural setting. A combination of fuller’s teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, and the ubiquitous Verbena bonariensis provides nectar and seeds, attracting a multitude of birds and insects.

Teasel, Goodnestone Park, Sept 2013

Beyond the gravel garden, grasses are also employed in more architectural set pieces. To the side of the main house a traditional yew hedge is softened by shimmering spheres of a nameless grass (a Miscanthus? Top of post), at once simple and contemporary. The stiff, brooding hedge creates the perfect foil for the constantly rippling mound of silky seed heads – a magical juxtaposition.

Check in again soon for the final instalment of our visit to Goodnestone, where I’ll be exploring the autumnal delights of the walled garden.

Grasses, Goodnestone Park, Sept 2013