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The Use Of Native Grasses In Your Garden

John Aitken

Editor's note: This is a report of a talk given by John Aitken to the Sutherland Group of the Australian Plants Society. The report was prepared by Ruchir Sodhani

Grasses are found all over the world in a variety of habitats ranging from rainforests to farms. They usually complement other plants in the garden due to their lower height. John's fascination with grasses came after being treated to a wonderful garden show in Hampton Court in the UK. His favourite display was a garden design based on grasses in a beach setting. There was a lot of use of sand and. gravel, and unusual sculptures like the skeleton of an old Viking ship! The grasses were in flower. With the sun shining, the grass heads looked like a sea with fairy lights swaying slowly with the breeze. John decided to experiment more with grasses and grass-like plants in his garden as well.

Austrostipa aristiglumis Poa labillardieri   
Austrostipa aristiglumis (left); Poa labillardieri (right)
(Kym Sparshott)

Grasses are used extensively in the northern hemisphere for landscape design. A lot of rushes were used as part of the plantings at the 2000 Olympics site at Homebush Bay. Some councils use Lomandra longifolia as a common roadside plant, but overall grasses are not used very often in garden design in Australia. Some species of grasses have some disadvantages that may deter enthusiasts - grasses can grow or die quickly; they can be a fire risk if abundant; they have a short active growing season in spring with a brown-off in summer; and may be unattractive at the end of the flowering season as the stems dry off. However, there is a bright side as well. Grasses come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They grow rapidly; are highly adaptable; are drought resistant; propagate readily from seed: and are self-sowing. Grasses can have many colours such as fresh lime green and blue, thereby providing a contrast of hues to your garden. They accentuate the garden by breaking up flat areas into different levels and contours. They can provide a wonderful rippling effect of a mini- forest as the wind passes over mass plantings.

Some grasses such as kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) have stunning seed heads. In summer, the spikelets are most attractive as they change from bluish-green with their black, shiny awns (ie. the bristles that grow from the flowering parts) to a rich copper colour. This is a versatile species and it can also be used as an ornamental grass for rockery pockets. Grass seeds attract a lot of seed-eating birds. They can also provide some music by producing a rustling effect. Austrodanthonia setacea (wallaby grass) is another promising species. This is an erect perennial grass with fine-leafed tussocks between 15 and 60 cm tall. These tussocks are drought and frost resistant and can tolerate a range of soils and conditions. It remains green for most of the year and flowers in response to rain. It has silvery spikelets with a tuft of white hairs with slender purple awns.

Plant some native grasses in your garden today. Use them with gravel, steps and sculptures to soften the edges. Even though they are the most overlooked group of plants, grasses are easy to look after!

From the newsletter of the Sutherland Group of the Australian Plants Society, November 2003.

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