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Triumph and Trials with Ornamental Grasses

I recently posted celebrating the triumph of my ornamental grasses garden bed. I had intended to post it a few months ago, but got side tracked (something that seems to happen quite often), but perhaps I spoke too soon. It was planted out in early March 2023 when most of the grasses were dormant, yet they all flourished and created a stunning display throughout the summer, so I have been surprised to see some hardy plants give up the ghost this year.

“A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself” – May Sarton

After a wet start to spring and then a short burst of warm weather the garden has exploded into life. Not all this growth has been welcome though. The weeds have just gone bananas and are demanding some serious attention. But focussing on the positives, the grasses bed, which has looked so bare and forlorn all winter, has finally decided to join the party and is bursting with energy. Most of the grasses are now starting to fill out beautifully.

Sadly, not all the plants have survived their first winter on Bute. As most grasses were cut down to ground level at the end of the season, until they begin to grow back, they all tend to look the same, which is just a small cluster of short, brown sticks. Some of which are still just small clusters of short, brown sticks..including my Festuca Glauca 'Intense Blue'. I am not sure why some have died, perhaps the mega drenching in early spring was too much for them, a shame as I planted them between the tufty Nassella Tenuissima and they created a great combo. Back to the drawing board to find a suitable replacement. I hope I have not lost all my Pennisetum as they are some of my favourite grasses, I planted a few varieties including the adorable 'Fairy Tails' with its fluffy tufts and the taller, striking 'Red Buttons'.

Even sadder still, my beautiful Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' and 'Apricot Twist' and Gaura 'Whirling Butterflies' are nowhere to be seen. The delicate Gaura really did look like whirling white butterflies as they swayed in the breeze, and the Erysimum added wonderful pops of colour among the grasses, I had deliberately chosen perennial varieties, so I am surprised that they have perished. Another mysterious death is the Nepeta Faassenii, a plant I thought was a born survivor, however as the Nepeta Six Hills Giant at the other end of the bed are roaring away, and are to be honest are too close together, I should be able to transplant one of them as a replacement for the Faassenii. I think the super drenching in early spring may just have been too much for some of the plants, particularly when they were just stirring after their winter slumber.

It is not all doom and gloom though. At the other end of the botanic spectrum are some plants that steam ahead like runaway trains. The Euphorbia Wulfenii is twice the size now, and the Nepeta Six Hills Giant are unstoppable. Having said that, I may have to rethink the Euphorbia as the bed is probably not the ideal position for it long term. I thought I had put in a dwarf variety, but now that it has established itself, I can see it was an 'oops' moment and it is not the one I intended to plant, so will need to be relocated and replaced with something similarly striking but smaller. Both varieties of Phormium are thriving and provided interest and colour throughout the winter. The Phlomis Russeliana, which looked so small last year, are now showing their true robust nature and standing up to the pushier grasses. And talking of pushy grasses, the Elymus Magellanicus, is a force of nature. I was prepared to deal with the constant shoots when I decided to plant them, as I just loved the way the blue leaves contrasted with the deep plum of my Astilbe Purpurlanze and the lime yellow of the Acorus Ogon. I figured it was a trade-off I was prepared to make, it is proving to be quite a trade-off though, as the shoots are appearing in the lawn, amongst other plants and quite frankly anywhere they can!!

I have planted more Gaura and Erysimum as I just loved them last year. It was too late in the season to get the beautiful Apricot Twist, so have only got the Bowles Mauve – lets see how they go this year. I think I will try some smaller varieties of Achillea in the bed as they may provide a more robust pop of colour – I am looking at Achillea 'New Vintage Red'. And for some structural interest I am experimenting with a couple of Echinops 'Arctic Glow', time will tell if this is another 'oops' moment ??

If at first you don’t succeed … plant, plant again.