Knoll Gardens owner Neil Lucas explains how to use grasses to create a spectacular flourish in autumn. By Louise Curley
While many gardens start to fade at this time of year, Knoll Gardens in Dorset is at its peak of perfection. This atmospheric idyll is home to one of the country’s most extensive collections of ornamental grasses; the Dragon Garden in particular showcases how a space planted mainly with grasses can create a striking, long-lasting seasonal display.
In October, the honey, bleached-blond and silvery tones of seedheads and fading foliage glow in the low autumn sunshine and glisten as they’re dusted with the first frosts of the season. Here, the garden’s owner Neil Lucas tells us about the garden and shares his tips on designing with grasses.
How did the gardens at Knoll come about? The four-acre garden had been a private botanic garden with lots of trees and shrubs before we moved here. The Dragon Garden was one of the first areas we tackled. It was a formal area with bedding plants, clipped hedges and lawn, but I could see its potential. We wanted to work with grasses and perennials in a much more naturalistic, looser style and this was a great spot for us to try out our ideas.
What are the main elements in its design? It’s roughly rectangular, bounded by a couple of hedges and a wisteria walk. At the centre is a raised circular pond with a stone dragon sculpture in the middle, which was already there when we came. It’s said to be inspired by a stained glass window in Wimborne Minster, so it has a very local connection to the garden, and the dragon and water seem to fit nicely with the naturalistic planting.
What are the key plants? We’ve used about 60 percent grasses and 40 percent perennials, and have specifically selected plants that reach five, six and even seven feet tall to give it some of the wow factor. These include miscanthus, Arundo donax, helianthus, sanguisorbas and the taller asters; plants that have lots of presence.
Grasses bring light and airy movement, so it’s not like having tall shrubs because they never feel oppressive. You can enjoy being among the grasses rather than feeling hemmed in. Shorter grasses such as pennisetums have been planted at the front of the beds, and we’ve thought about texture and form too, from cortaderia (pampas grass) plumes to spiky phormium leaves.
Do you have any tips for choosing grasses? It’s such a vast group of plants there are grasses to suit almost any position. The key is to find out whether they like light or shade and wet or dry; get these right and you’ll be able to grow them successfully. You don’t need to worry about soil pH..
How do you use them? A traditional herbaceous border might use 30 or more different plants, whereas here I use only four or five different perennials and maybe six to eight different grasses. Both the grasses and perennials are planted in blocks and repeated throughout the beds, which creates a more dramatic look. It’s easier to maintain than a more traditional planting scheme. More traditional border plants such as delphiniums, for instance, have to be staked and protected from slugs and have a short season of interest. Our grasses and perennials are much easier to manage and last far longer.
Any grasses to avoid in a small garden? Pampas grasses have sharp-edged leaves and grow to be large plants. I’d also avoid annual grasses that can self-sow and become a nuisance.
What grasses grow best in British gardens? Cool season grasses have adapted to grow in climates like ours and include molinia, calamagrostis and deschampsia. They come into growth and flower earlier in the year than warm-season grasses such as panicums and miscanthus, which come from warmer places such as the USA.
What’s a good combination for starters? For an open, sunny site I’d go for Molinia caerulea ‘Dauerstrahl’, a cultivar of our native purple moor grass; low-growing sesleria ‘Greenlee’s Hybrid’, which has lots of lovely silvery flowers and looks great at the front of a border; and miscanthus ‘Cindy’, one of our own selections, which is compact and good for small spaces.
How does the garden progress through the seasons? We cut the deciduous grasses and perennials down to the ground in late winter/early spring and do a spring clean, preparing the borders, doing any maintenance and mulching. There are spring bulbs, and we have a pergola that’s covered with wisteria and woody shrubs that provide structure and interest. The early green growth of the grasses looks lovely and fresh, and from June, it just gets better and better as the perennials start to flower alongside the grasses. In autumn it’s all about the seedheads capturing the frost, and it all looks fantastic in winter with a dusting of snow.
● LOCATION Knoll Gardens, Stapehill Road, Hampreston, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 7ND
● OPEN Pre-booked slots are available online
● CONTACT 01202 873931 or visit the website www.knollgardens.co.uk