Our hillside position comes with the weather and, perched as we are above the shelter of the woods below us, the wind is free to whistle. Our usual breeze, which brings most of the rain from the south-west, comes down the valley, whilst the chill winds that so often hit when the garden is coming to life, pushup the valley from the east. Unseen until you give it something to move through, the wind is something I set out to harness in the planting. The slopes behind us are allowed to run to meadow in the summer and the landform that we made to hold the buildings and the kitchen garden is also seeded to meadow. Look up the valley from the house and you can often see a breeze before it arrives, rippling towards us and making the wind visible.
The inclusion of ornamental grasses brings the meadows and their movement into the garden and it was important when trialling the grasses that they felt in tune and part of this setting. The deschampsia, molinia and panicum all had the modesty and grace I was looking for, but it was hard to have a grasses trial without including miscanthus. Silvergrass, clumping by nature and forming a distinctive mound of foliage before showy autumnal plumage, are not grasses that you use as a backdrop or a gauzy support. They are the stars when they are out and demand your attention.
When I first started gardening miscanthus were perhaps more fashionable and the domain of designers such as John Brookes and Oehme and Van Sweden. My first encounter as a teenager was with Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’ and at home I teamed it with Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’. Together they soared to two and a half metres to fill our kitchen windows with artificial sunlight. The golden flowered black-eyed-Susan and silver feathers of the miscanthus provided for a full three months of autumn. I have played with miscanthus fairly consistently since then, slowly working my way through a plethora of species and cultivars. In the early years Miscanthus sacchariflorus was a favourite for its three metre stands of rustling sugar-cane foliage and then M. sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ for its distinctive horizontal stripes of bright lime green. These plants were selected for their structural presence, but we are spoiled today with a wealth of forms selected for their silky flower.
When I had enough space of my own in our old Peckham garden I toyed with several different varieties over the fourteen years we were there. Getting to know a plant for three or four years and then moving on to try a new variety kept the garden moving and my knowledge and appetite replenished. Miscanthus nepalensis was perhaps the most exotic, a relatively tender species with pendant, burnished plumage like a golden fleece. Though beautiful it proved to be less reliable than others. This was possibly due to the fact that I tried to insert them when the planting was well-established, casting too much shade and competition. One of the great positives about miscanthus are that they are reliably clump forming and long-lived too, if you give them the room and the light they need to perform.
The best of those that I have experienced for myself combine a good balance of foliage and an ability to stand well once they come into flower. The lofty ‘Silberfeder’, for instance, leans as the flowers develop. Varieties such as ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ and ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ have been specifically selected not to take space, their fountain of foliage being neat and their flowers losing none of their grace for being upright and self-supporting. A good plant is one that you can leave more-or-less alone from the point it is taken back to base in February. It will pull away with a fresh mound of strappy leaf and then need no corralling as it comes into flower.
Whether they are tall or short, miscanthus always have a presence and it is no surprise that in Japan, where you will see their silvery plumage animating roadsides, they are celebrated as the harbinger of autumn. This is their real season and, though I always enjoy the reliable companionship of their foliage in summer, the moment their flowering stalks begin to rise, you know that the next season is in the air.
The flower colour of the named forms varies enormously, the silver plumage of the wild M. sinensis being the colour you see most often. Those selected for the pink in the flower, such as ‘Flamingo’, are undeniably beautiful, but they set a very particular tone, which is rather unnatural. My favourites are the darkest with thunderous reds and browns in the emerging flower. ‘Ferne Osten’ is one of the first to appear in August with dark red flowers, but this earliness brings the autumn feeling into the garden too soon, as the flowers ripen and pale in September. I am happy to see the flower spikes breaking free of the mounding foliage in August, but over the years I have come to prefer pushing autumn the other way and to only now be feeling that we have seen the last of it and that winter is upon us.
Of the five or six miscanthus I trialled for the garden here, I had to be strict. In fact I almost discounted them altogether as being too showy for this rural location. The ornamental mood of the Silvergrass requires them to be close to the buildings or where the garden can afford to feel less connected to the meadows beyond us. I kept two, the first to come to flower being ‘Dronning Ingrid’. This is a delightful plant (main image), good for being modestly sized both in the scale of the leaf and the mound it creates as it gathers in strength during the summer. The flowers started to push up in August here, showing their dark, wiry filaments by the end of the month, their upright form retaining space between the plumage. I like this very much because the flowers act as weather vanes, describing the wind in each of their outlines. The deep mahogany in the flower is set against pale Aster umbellatus and the redness picked up in an undercurrent of Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Blackfield’. They retain a sleek darkness for the best part of six weeks, before the foliage reddens and the flower ripens and pales as it becomes more feathery.
‘Krater’ is the bigger of the two, but still compact and orderly. It is planted here to hold the corner at the bottom of the steps down to the studio where the foliage mounds to waist height before pushing up flowers in September. The original clump was quartered two years ago (in March, the time to split grasses) and I do not expect to have to divide them again for seven or eight years. They take the full brunt of sunshine in this position and provide shadow for hellebores I’ve planted on their north side. This ability to use miscanthus like shrubs for structure and shade is one of their greatest assets. ‘Krater’ also starts dark and moody in flower, but the flowerheads are both a more subdued grey-brown and more open and tasselled than ‘Dronning Ingrid’. As the season progresses the foliage flares yellow and orange before bleaching to parchment for the winter. As the flowers age and the dark cloud silvers, they provide us with light catchers to arrest the low rays as they glance through the garden.
By the end of February, when we start to clear the perennials, I will have had enough and will take a serrated Turkish knife and fell them to the ground. This will mark the end of the period we are now just entering, a winter endured and mapped in a grass that I will always take time to make room for.