Designing With Grasses: Book Review

I've always had a bit of a struggle with grasses. Too much tackling couch, then a highly invasive zebra grass at our first house have put me off them somewhat. Then my garden here goes from deep shade through to Mediterranean in just a few steps, so I haven't really managed to see how they'd fit in this garden either.

Helen (Patient Gardener) and Karen (Artist's Garden) find this a rather strange (and amusing!) state of affairs and have done their darndest to get me converted to grasses, with some degree of success. They hatched a sneaky plan at last year's Meet at Malvern and Karen's generous gift of plants meant I could experiment a little. I must concede there are some definite possibilities for succession planting amongst my Aquilegia.

But I'm yet to be fully converted. That is until I started reading Neil Lucas' Designing with Grasses. Neil owns Knoll Gardens in Dorset, famed for its grass specialism. He has a deep understanding of grass communities both in the wild and in cultivation, so is the ideal person to showcase exactly what they can do for a garden. He's very much an advocate of 'right plant right place' and as there are species found in every area of the world, he's confident they have an important role to play in all kinds of situations.

Neil shows us both natural and planted grassland communities which provide structure for just as long as the more familiar woody plants with the added bonus of movement to boot. They're also low-maintenance, tough and provide food and shelter for wildlife. There's lots of well chosen photographs illustrating their versatility and just how diverse this plant group is. I felt my prejudices beginning to crumble.

On top of all this, Neil describes the making of the Decennium border at Knoll, designed to show-off grasses in a naturalistic style, which is a marked departure from our more traditional looking flowerbeds. Instead of the border being at its best for just one season, it's designed to provide interest for a much longer period without the need for staking or dead heading. The resulting combination of grasses with perennials photographed over the growing season well into winter opened my eyes to the possibilities.

There then follows a multitude of recommendations for particular situations such as pots; sun-baked, gravel and drought; woodland and shade; or wet and waterside. Then everything is brought bang up to date by considering particular 'jobs' grasses are good for: erosion control, habitat restoration and green roofs to name but three. Whilst I was reading these chapters and drooling over the photographs, I suddenly found myself looking out the window at our front lawn and thinking hmmm Hakonechloa would look rather good there.

A massive chunk of the second half of the book is the Directory of Grasses and Grass-Like Plants which describe hundreds of possibilities and where they will do best. Notes on their maintenance and a handy guide to planting densities means I will be able to start growing my grasses with confidence once I take the plunge.

I met Neil in May at Malvern where I confessed my problems with liking this group of plants. He smiled and wrote in my review copy:

Hope you enjoy the grasses and become a full convert!

I'm enjoying the conversion very much indeed :)


  1. Hakonechloa would look very fine in your front garden, and I can think of one or two others that would also sit nicely at yours!
    Yes, I am chuckling!

  2. I'm very much a convert to grasses too and that book is going straight to the top of my wish list. Thanks for the informative review.

  3. Karen - we must discuss when I come and visit :)

    Preseli Mags - it's a fantastic book. I hope you enjoy it!

  4. I dont have room for pararies of grqass but I have had a liking for them for years and I have clothed my courtyard with them in large containers and they are so soothing - in the breeze, in the calm, so many colours subtle and beautiful. They are mixed with ferns and a couple of tree peaonies and self sown aqulygias dotted amongst them - grand (sorry spelling part of dyspraxia bad to day hope you can read this)

  5. alberta ross - reading you loud and clear :) I'm planning on growing a Hakonechloa in a container to see how it grows/looks before committing to digging up the front lawn. I know it'll look fab, but need some idea of how it'll look at the start of the growing season. Your idea with ferns sounds worth a ponder for here too

  6. OK, I'm sold. I was already a fan of grasses, but this review has convinced me I need, really need, this book. I hope my other half understands this ;-)

    Enjoy your grassy adventures!

  7. Janet - this is one of those rare books which is an essential reference and will be constantly thumbed through. It works on so many levels: inspiration, how to, understanding grass ecology and how that translates into where they'll work in the garden etc etc. It's a reference that's good for both amateur and professional. Neil's poured years of his experience into this book and we're the lucky recipients as a result :)

  8. Having read your review of this book as well as Helen's it has become a must read. I can vouchsafe that hakonechloa is a good doer in a container.

  9. I've been hankering for that book since it came out. As someone who has only 4 ornamental grasses (albeit in several places now) I can assure you that you will, over the years, grow to love them more and more. As they mature and fill out they get such individual characters of their own and their differences become as apparent as those in flowers.

    I hope you get lots of pleasure when you take the plunge. I'd like to recommend Lazula Nivea as a small, well behaved grass that blends well with lower herbaceous flowers. It's actually a reed, and everyone who has ever visited my garden has shown an interest or asked for some.

  10. Anna - I must go to Knoll in September and get some :)

    Cally - welcome! I'm sure you'd enjoy this book. Lazula was one of the grasses in Karen's gift and was what I interplanted with my Aquilegia :)

  11. I have been like you were for years and, like you, have been being worked on by Karen. It sounds as if the last piece of the jigsaw is this book. I think I shall have to have it!

  12. Elizabethm - it's a great book!


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