Five great grasses for containers

You don’t need a grass garden to appreciate the beauty of these useful plants, says Neil Lucas of Knoll Gardens.

Carex testacea

Grasses add a seductively informal feel to any garden but can bring a particularly wonderful burst of the natural world to a patio. Frequently we think of their use in meadow planting schemes, or as huge swathes providing a billowing mass of feathered fronds in garden drifts. In fact, individually they can be just as beautiful, with some also offering a profusion of flower or stunning colour late into the year – and many are well suited to life in a pot or container. Neil Lucas owns and runs Knoll Gardens, the UK’s leading ornamental grass specialist.

Anemanthele lessoniana

This is one of the most beautiful of evergreen grasses that I would always have room for. When planted in the garden it is highly adaptable, being happy in full sun, and without doubt is one of the top grasses for growing in dry shade where few others will survive. Coming from windy places in New Zealand it is not at all keen on wet soils and so life in a container suits it very well. Its most appropriate common name of pheasant’s tail grass accurately reflects its gracefully drooping foliage that, when placed in enough sun, turns through an ever changing procession of greens, tans, reds and cinnamon that is a constant delight. If that wasn’t enough, pheasant’s tail produces masses of lax flower stems holding individually tiny pink flowers in such profusion they can literally cover the plant in a soft pink haze. It has an average lifespan of around three to five years but grows amazingly quickly and is so effective that I am happy to replace it as and when I need to.

Grows to around 60cm – 90cm tall.

Anemanthele lessoniana. Image: Neil Lucas

Carex testacea

This orange foliaged member of the sedge family is always a favourite for pots and containers. Its evergreen foliage is gently drooping and in sufficient sun can appear in almost any shade of orange through tan and every colour in between. Adaptable as the members of the sedge family generally are in terms of sun or shade and wet or dry, Carex testacea does need enough sun to ensure the production of its attractive foliage. In too much shade it can take on a disappointing average brown colouration! What I especially love about this particular sedge is the ability of its foliage to gradually creep down the side of the pot. So when used in a ‘long tom’ for example, its leaves will slowly keep extending, eventually to reach the floor; such a lovely simple effect.

Grows to around 40cm – 60cm tall (and rather longer downwards).

Carex testacea. Image: Neil Lucas

Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’

The golden hakone grass is a most beautiful and distinct grass originating from Japan. It is one of my personal favourites for its beautifully marked green and yellow leaves which while a stronger yellow/gold in sun, become a more subtle shade of greenish yellow in shade. While not the fastest to establish in the ground, they are among the very best of grasses for use in pots and containers. These grasses are very long lived (10 to 20 years), and have very elegant leaves, which are much longer than wide reducing gradually to a pointed tip. The flowers are often described as ‘insignificant’, but with such beautiful foliage and overall shape they are hardly needed. This refined grass is deciduous so needs cutting down every spring but its foliage will stay intact for most of the winter and being relatively slow-growing it requires a re-potting only every other year or so.

Grows to around 30cm – 45cm tall.

Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’. Image: Neil Lucas

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’

Miscanthus are large grasses and so not always a good choice for anything but the very largest of pots and containers which can accommodate their, undoubtedly beautiful, bulk. However while ‘Morning Light’ is not really an especially small version, it does have the most amazing upright, vase-like, habit which makes it particularly valuable for a medium to large sized pot. The combination of this upright habit rising from almost any style of container, from modern to traditional, is something that I always enjoy seeing and is so effective in just about any size of garden. The foliage is very narrow which adds greatly to its charm and when seen close up is delicately variegated with white. Being selected primarily for its foliage and habit ‘Morning Light’ tends not to flower in most summers here in the UK, but when it does the flowers are a very complimentary warm pink.

Grows to around (in pots) 1.2m tall.

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’. Image: Neil Lucas

Jarava ichu

This most charming grass is a relation of the ever popular Nassella tenuissima (Stipa) with the same fine hair-like, bright green, rolled foliage which it produces in double quick time during the summer. This on its own would be enough of a reason for me to want to grow it but then, during high summer onwards, it produces the most sensuous of soft white, much longer than wide, flowers which bob and float on the slightest of summer breezes. Jarava demands a sunny open position to flower well and when happy it will do so in great profusion. It is a great grass for pots thanks to its network of fine fibrous roots, and can be divided easily when needed. Indeed dividing Jarava like this will keep it young and healthy as if not re-potted annually it is likely to slow down its growth and produce less flower. As it is possible that it might succumb to a hard winter it is best to save a few seeds each year, which germinate easily in the spring with a little heat.

Grows to around 70cm – 90cm tall.

Nassella tenuissima (Stipa)
Jarava ichu. Image: Adobe Stock

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