The romance of grass

There’s a fuss in the garden landscaping community at the moment about something a lot of us take for granted: grass. But this is less about carefully manicured Kikuyu, and more about lovely-but-low-maintenance ornamental grasses.

These are the kind made famous by the ‘painterly’ and practical talents of Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. Even for the green-fingered novice, Piet’s work is instantly recognisable: think the High Line in New York, or London’s Serpentine Pavilion. So, let’s… well, dig in.

The most obvious benefits of ornamental grasses are their appeal in adding texture, contrast and movement to your garden. But their delights are a gift that keeps on growing. This is because grasses offer spectacle, albeit in different guises, all year round. Whether the beige muted tones of their stalks and arrow-like heads in the Highveld winters, or their kaleidoscopic grandstanding in spring and summer, these sometimes under-appreciated stars put on a show no matter the season. 

We chatted to two leading local garden designers, and found some inspiring local case studies, for further insight. Two approaches emerged: a structured or linear one, and then a more ad hoc attitude. 

There are plenty of ways to use grasses in your garden, including in containers and pots (especially on patios and decks), and by creating interesting edging with shorter grasses along the borders of pathways and flower beds. Grasses also soften harder architectural elements and are a super alternative to more rigid, high maintenance hedges. 

A single grass type planted en-masse makes a bold statement. Different grasses grouped together allow for contrasting colours and forms. And grasses can also be combined with complimentary evergreens and annuals, to add visual and textural interest to any size garden.


Joburg-based landscaper Gregory Mark is partial to a more formal approach to grasses. 

The primary goal in Greg’s landscaping projects is to create breathing space for his clients to interact with the outdoors. Architecture, in its broadest sense, includes both indoor and outdoor spaces. So, when it comes to landscaping, Greg engages with both the architecture and the garden. His approach to grasses is to create clean and calming landscaped vistas. He also notes how grasses can soften, transform and enhance built architecture, without competing with it.

If you’re looking for maximum impact, Greg is an advocate of en-masse planting. When it comes to contrast and interest, he suggests mixing ornamental grasses with low-maintenance, drought-hardy evergreen exotics such as lavender and irises. Some effective indigenous pairings include the lush Agapanthus, with its globes of white or purple flowers, or, if you’re in the Cape, try a mix of Aristea capitata (Blue Rocket or Sceptre) and Tritoniopsis triticea (Mountain Pipes).

For a bit of drama, Greg enjoys working with anything belonging to the Pennisetum family. We agree, and think you’ll find the array of beautiful colours and varieties pleasing, especially when using swaths of brightly coloured grasses as accents, or to highlight areas within your landscape design.

Greg’s hit list:

1. Pennisetum Vertigo for its rich, dark-coloured foliage that gives a garden depth. 

2. Pennisetum Rubrum or fountain grass is another favourite, with its brilliantly-coloured foliage and striking, fluffy plumes of flowers (or florets). When the wind blows, these blooms can animate a garden as they shift and sway.

3. An ornamental indigenous grass called Setaria megaphylla, or ribbon grass, which Greg describes as underutilised. This broad-leafed grass is also shade-loving, and thrives under trees.


Cape Town-based landscaper Chris Maddams, and architect Victoria Hudson, had a more free-flowing approach with this next project.

When Victoria went about renovating this 1930s house in Cape Town, Chris helped enhance the setting with his plant knowledge. His role was to interpret Victoria’s ideas about the space: how she wanted the garden to appear when viewed from inside, and, more generally, how the garden had to function within the confines of a courtyard.

The house surrounds the space on 3 sides. Here, the grasses create paths for users to access and penetrate the garden, moving to different areas that are enclosed within the bands of planting. 

The planting process was quite organic: originally, the garden featured a traditional lawn with a copse of trees. In the midst of the Western Cape’s drought, however, it turned into a dust bowl – especially when the South Easter blew. Chris’s first task was to stop the dust: achieved by simply laying gravel.

As the garden evolved Chris added more of what worked, including additions of contrasting succulents and seasonal bulbs for interest. Even though the process was phased and relatively intuitive, Chris was always mindful of how things grow, and how fast. 

Interestingly, where most gardens are constructed with major beds around the perimeter – traditionally enclosing a fastidiously mown lawn – this shape is defined as a bowl rising from the ground and moving outwards. None of the initial beds touched the perimeter walls, so the garden took shape as mounds undulating in a sea of gravel, completely disrupting the expected shape of the courtyard and making it far more intriguing and inviting to stroll in.

Leeuendal - Red Daffodil

Chris’s hit list:

1. Elegia fistulosa for its thick golden bracts on the male flowers born on very upright green stems.

2. Melinus nerviglumis is a must-have on the edges of paths and borders. It’s tough as nails, but sends up glorious soft metallic pink flowers.

3. Chlorophytum saundersiae boasts lush, fat green leaves, and white, star-shaped flowers all year round. It also has the ability to grow from shade to sun.

WORDS & PRODUCTION: J-P de la Chaumette
PHOTOGRAPHY: Supplied (Gregory Mark) and Inge Prins (Red Daffodil)
Hero image: Piet Oudolf garden courtesy of

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