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Designing with Grasses, a book review for

Designing with Grasses, Neil Lucas, Timber Press

Ornamental grasses have been slowly influencing the works of garden designers in a stealth manner. At first, we noticed them planted in Mediterranean-style gardens in South West USA, where drought filled summers are common. Then we began to see them in the prairie meadows of the Mid West. Eventually, they were included in revolutionary and boundary-breaking designs of public spaces in the North and North East. In tandem with these developments has been the rise in profile of grass-filled meadow gardens as an optional replacement for resource-depleting lawns.

Today, ornamental grasses are considered as significant as perennials. Several publications have been written about designing with these plants and it is only a coincidence that this one has crossed my path.

The author is a nine-time, award winning ornamental grass specialist, who lectures around the world. He is also the owner of Knoll Gardens, a nursery and show garden, located in Dorset England. The photos that illustrate this review are supplementary to the exquisite and inspirational images that appear in the book. They have been added here to reveal Mr. Lucas’ masterful talent. While many photographers are able to deliver the beauty of individual grasses, Mr. Lucas takes that art to a higher level by capturing the spirituality created by grasses when they are combined in a composition of other plants. Even though it is not a coffee table book, this publication delivers on a smaller scale, the powerful photography fix that most gardeners crave.

According to Mr. Lucas, the rising importance of ornamental grasses mirrors contemporary expectations that one ought to be able to create successful gardens with less effort than in the past. These plants are helpful in that regard. Their adaptability to a wide range of climates and growing conditions allows them to contribute more to a garden’s success, using fewer plants and less labor.

In addition, ornamental grasses work to complement other plants as they supply form, structure and movement. Their versatility makes them adaptable to grow in sandy or clay soils, in sun or shade, in dry or wet areas, and under trees.

The author elaborates on the multi-purposeful contribution of grasses to garden design. He discusses how their color and lasting form give a garden year-round continuity and how both their texture and shape add character. We also learn that grasses have the ability to capture the wind, thereby creating movement and sound in the garden.

Mr. Lucas further highlights the effectiveness of grasses as design elements by describing how they influence static foundation plants with their movement and how they help to soften the straight-edge boundaries of hedges and hardscapes. It is fascinating to learn that when grass plumage captures the rising and setting sun, they transform sunlight into a design element.

Also discussed in detail, are the conditions under which grasses will thrive and the varieties that perform best in each of the different growing environments. These include, sun baked, gravel and drought conditions, woodland and shade, wet and waterside positions, pots and containers, erosion control, habitat restoration, green roofs, rain gardens, and native gardens.

Specific tools for maintenance are suggested and advice is offered for the care of many classifications of grasses, such as deciduous, summer dormant, evergreen, and semi evergreen. In addition, there are tips for maintaining meadows, lawns, green roofs, container–grown grasses as well as propagation. Finally, the author supplies a beautifully illustrated directory of grasses and grass-like perennials with technical information for no less than 450 plants. Some garden books inspire us with words, others with images. This publication does both.

Note: All photos used in the text of this blog are copyrighted and used with the permision of Neil Lucas and click- link back to Knoll Gardens.


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Reader Comments (2)

Great review! The photos are tantalizing and almost enough to make me look seriously at grasses. I never have, because I am afraid of the invasive potential. Perhaps I am wrong. The landscapes you show are gorgeous with the gasses neatly in their places. I wonder how hard it is to keep them there!

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdebsgarden

Although there are a handful of grasses, like Ribbon Grass, that are invasive in all climates, most ornamental grasses are tame. However, each growing zone has its specific list of trouble makers. For example I have no problem with Miscanthus in USDA zone 4 but I understand it can be invasive in California.
The rule of thumb is that all grasses need room to spread in a tame, disciplined manner, and every few years, some if not all, will benefit from lifting and propagation to eliminate dead growing spots in their core.

March 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterAllan

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