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Garden Design

Using grassy plants in garden design

Alison Aplin

Alison Aplin

March 31, 2013

For those of you who have followed my posts, you will know that I am an ardent fan of foliage plants. Australian grass-like plants certainly fit into this realm, and are used regularly in my garden designs and landscaping. The late Christopher Lloyd first kindled my instinct for using grassy plants in my designs about 15 years ago. He was particularly fond of the Miscanthus plant group, which I also love. But here the tale is about our indigenous plants.

Before I mention the varieties that I use regularly, I will explain how I use them. We too often see gardens that are full of plants with that ‘grassy’ look – cordylines, flax, libertias and so on, with no other plants to offset the grassy habit. This garden style is frequently used in ‘House and Land’ packages; as a designer I find them totally boring. Wouldn’t our gardens be more interesting if we endeavoured to get away from this style of gardening?

Lomandra Katrinus with Melaleuca and Eremophila

Lomandra Katrinus with Melaleuca and Eremophila

All foliage plants need contrast for good garden design. A garden with just grass-like plants has no meaning or character. Consider interior design as an example – a room that has no adornment other than furniture is cold, lacking character. The minimalistic look has gone too far and even in interior spaces has lost appeal. So too should the effect outside. An indigenous grassy plant can be used well even with exotic plants, which I do, so that the native plant helps to ‘ground’ the design into the Australian garden, even if it is a predominantly exotic garden.

To balance the grassy texture, something with a broad leaf or even a narrow leaf works well. An example here that I have used in my own garden [and it is always my own garden that I use for writing inspiration] is the Acacia cognata ‘Limelight’ with Lomandra longifolia ‘Katrinus Deluxe’. The Acacia could be sutstituted with the new Agonis flexuosa ‘Lemon & Lime’ although the foliage colour here is more chartreuse than that of the acacia which has a more goldy yellow colour. They are all weeping and so in my garden to balance the double weeping, I have used Agonis juniperina in its upright form to counteract this. Also in the grouping is Melaleuca hypericifolia ‘Ulladalla Beacon’, a prostrate plant and Eremophila glabra – orange form.

Australian native grassy plants have been hybridised to provide some really great designer plants. They can be used in many different parts of Australia, as well as overseas with similar climates, because of their hardiness. If they ever look scrappy, they just need to be cut right back and will regrow again. I find that with my degree of TLC, this never needs to be done.

The plants that I particularly like are the Lomandra family, of which there are many and Dianella. I will break these 2 plant groups up and discuss those which I would recommend –

Lomandra hystrix 'Katie Belles'

Lomandra hystrix ‘Katie Belles’ Photo Ozbreed

Lomandra hystrix ‘Katie Belles’ – this is the tallest of this plant group, similar in height to the species Lomandra hystrix. It is a wonderful plant and not easily found in my area. I have to source it further afield. Not only is it a superb plant to look at, growing up to 1.3 metres tall and as wide, but it blooms prolifically with cream coloured spikes which really stand out in the garden. And why do I rate this so highly? As a designer I am always on the lookout for plants that will tolerate wet feet in winter and spring but will also tolerate the seasonal dryness of summer and autumn. This is the best grassy plants that I know for tolerating extreme wet feet. And it grows well in dappled shade.

Lomandra 'TropicBelle'

Lomandra ‘TropicBelle’ Photo Ozbreed

Lomandra hystrix ‘Tropicbelle’ – a smaller version of the above and not as spectacular a plant. But it is also good for the same growing conditions, though of smaller stature. Grows 80cm x 80cm.

Lomandra 'Katrinus deluxe' Photo Ozbreed

Lomandra ‘Katrinus deluxe’ Photo Ozbreed

Lomandra 'Tanika'

Lomandra ‘Tanika’

Lomandra longifolia ‘Katrinus Deluxe’ – of similar height to the above growing as a clump to 80cm x 80cm. It has flat tho fine dark green weeping foliage with beautiful fragrant flowers in spring. As with all perfumed plants, humidity increases the intensity of aromas.
Lomandra longifolia ‘Tanika’ – A more compact form of longifolia growing 60cm x 60cm with fine dark green foliage and yellow flowerheads in spring. A great plant for really dry spots once established.

Lomandra 'Nyalla' Photo Ozbreed

Lomandra ‘Nyalla’ Photo Ozbreed

Lomandra longifolia ‘Nyalla’ – A clumping grass-like plant growing 80cm x 80cm with steel blue foliage; yellow flowers in spring. The foliage is reminiscent of the Grass Tree, so distinctive of Australiana. I have found it to be slow growing, but it is worth the wait.
Lomandra cylindrica ‘Lime Wave’ – A graceful weeping clumping form with bright chartreuse foliage. The plant grows 70cm x 70cm with bright lemon yellow flowers in spring and summer. I grow this in part shade and the colour is outstanding.

Dianella 'Blaze'

Dianella ‘Blaze’ Photo Ozbreed

Dianella tasmanica ‘Blaze’ – This ornamental flax lily grows 40cm x 40cm. It has rich red foliage during the cooler months with blue flowers in spring followed by purple berries. It is a real highlight in an area of my garden where I have had so much trouble because of koala urine. This plant is growing in dappled shade under gum trees and also out in full sun in other parts of the garden. The colour contrast of the foliage is superb with grey leaved plants.
Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue’ – This is a clumping flax lily, growing 40cm x 40cm with blue foliage. It has blue flowers in spring followed by purple berries. It looks particularly good with the ‘Blaze’ dianella, but needs other plants to offset the grassy texture.

Dianella 'Cassa Blue'

Dianella ‘Cassa Blue’ Photo Ozbreed

Dianella tasmanica ‘Splice’ – This form of the Tasman flax lily grows 30 to 50cm x 50cm to 1m. It is less clumping than the others and has the tendency to wander like the species Tasman flax. The foliage is green and lemon with a stripe along the length, with blue flowers and purple berries. Excellent for shade with the foliage really standing out.

Dianella 'Silverado'. Image Touch of Class Plants

Dianella ‘Silverado’ Photo Touch of Class Plants

Dianella ‘Silverado’ – A spreading dianella with superb silvery grey foliage with a white stripe at the edge of the leaf margin. It grows to 70cm in height. Excellent for a shady spot, massed in the garden.

A lot of the dianellas run; this is the natural habit of most of them. But when used correctly in a native garden, can be quite delightful. When used under eucalypts, these plants are so remarkably tough, and their running capability creates that truly bushland effect. Where each plant runs, they form new colonies – these should be encouraged to happen, but unfortunately people who want perfectly groomed gardens don’t appreciate the natural effect that they create.

The dianellas are really for the Australian bush garden. Lomandras, because of their compact habit are more suited to formal use in exotic gardens. But both plants, if you have an indigenous garden, are wonderful plant specimens as a foil for more solid, dumpy plants.

I hope that those of you who read this article, decide to give some of the plants mentioned a try if you haven’t already done so. In any garden in Australia, native or exotic, they definitely have a place.

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Jeff Howes
Jeff Howes
11 years ago

Thanks for the great article.
From my experience over many years, in my garden at the northern end of Sydney, Lomandra Tanika gets to one metre by one metre of wider over time and do not look at their best in really dry conditions. They can be ‘rejuvenated’ as you suggested by cutting back hard — that is hard work.
For smaller gardens, I have found, you need a degree of formality to look their best especially if you are using predominately native plants. Most of the Dianellas fulfill this criteria, as they have more upright foliage than the Lomandras (and Poas), however to perform at their best they need a fair bit of sun.
Just my thoughts.

11 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Howes

Thanks for your comments Jeff.
Different climates obviously have very different effects. Your comment about the Dianella doing best in sun is surprisingly at odds with my experience. But much of this is due to humidity. Where plants experience heat with a higher humidity, plants fare so much better.
In the Clare Valley, South Australia, the heat is dry with very low humidity – plants cook in this heat. Even in SW Victoria the last couple of summers, the hot northerly winds have come with low humidity which is also burning plants’ foliage. So the Dianellas are doing much better under our eucalypts than out in full sun – in fact they seem to be doing very well in quite a lot of shade.
As for the Lomandra ‘Tanika looking ratty after a while, this may be due to the type of soil that you have. There are lomandras that do well in loose, sandy soil and there are those which prefer a heavier soil. Tanika does not like wet feet. The Lomandra hystrix varieties do better in soil that is periodically wet.
The only time that I have seen L.Tanika doing badly was in a garden that received no irrigation at all [with a very dry summer] and had not been mulched. So I am surprised that you have had little success with this plant. Could they have been planted too deeply? This will also have an effect on the longevity of the plant, or they may have been too tight in the pot when originally planted. This is one plant group that should NEVER be at all pot bound when planted – they should be really fresh plants for viability.
Another thought – are you sure that they are Tanika? Is the foliage really fine, as the size of your plant exceeds quite a lot what I have with plants in my garden and elsewhere.

Jeff Howes
Jeff Howes
11 years ago
Reply to  AliCat

Thanks for your long reply.
Yes they were L. Tanika and they were planted properly and while they had a good root system they were teased out etc etc (have been gardening with native plants for greater than 30 years). My friable soil is thin over clay, although they were not planted in a ‘sump’. Out of about 10 I have planted only one or two really looked good after 3 to 5 years. In that time Sydney has had 2 very wet years so that could be the problem.
The problem I have had with the few varieties of Dianella that I have used is the flower stems are week and they flop all over the place and look untidy ( I assumed this was because they are growing in not enough sun) — BUT the biggest problem is caterplillers – the one that encases itself in little sticks they eat them to the ground if I am not diligent.

Any way, no reply needed as one of the joys of gardening is finding plants that suit your site and local micro climate.


9 years ago

Now I know where the “Name” of the suburb of Dianella in the Nothern Suburbs comes from. Thank you for the article.

Incidentally we live in that suburb and I haven’t seen those plants around… pity. I will have to ask our gardener from “Malaga Gardening and Mowing” if he knows about them just for giggles.

9 years ago
Reply to  Dave

Sorry the Nothern Suburbs of Perth, Western Australia.

Rose Boxall
Rose Boxall
7 years ago

Hi Alison, having been to Timandra many years ago, the main thing I remember from the visit was the many grasses and how well they grew. Can you tell me what was the soil type there? We have just purchased a 1/2 acre block at Farrell Flat and I hope the soil is better for waterwise gardening than our current red sand in the Riverland. As mid aged gardeners I need to plant ‘easy’ – natives as a wind break (those pesky northerlies and westerlies) and have a garden that is not too hard to keep. And I hope to utilise Timandra garden as a guide to what I may be able to grow there. I was there last weekend and the roses in FF and Mintaro were spectacular, so do hope to grow one or two as a feature – eg climber on a pergola, etc. Many thanks for your expert advice in other posts.
Rosie Bee

Catherine Stewart
7 years ago
Reply to  Rose Boxall

Rose – Alison has sent me this reply for you:

Hello Rose
I left the Mintaro Timandra 8 years ago, so am reliant on memory.
I think that the grass- like plants that you ask about are Lomandra ‘Tanika’. Another that I have since found very reliable is Lomandra ‘Nyalla’ which looks like a grass tree without the stump when mature.
From my recollection, the soil in Farrell Flat is a heavier clay than that of Timandra in Mintaro, so the latter suggestion may prove more reliable.
The subsoil over the upper parts of the site is limestone, with areas of chalk, so the drainage is excellent.
Winds can be damaging gale force and frosts can be extreme, including damaging black frosts.
I hope that this helps.

6 years ago

Alison, no intentional fault of yours but all the ID’s of these Dianellas and Lomandras that you have used are genericised trade marks. The actual variety names are not mentioned. Trade mark holders are supposed to police this but of course they know they can have their cake and eat it too. They then control the known identity (generic names) ad infinitum and no one else can technically use them even after PBR runs out.
I can explain further if you are interested. One of the best examples of a well genericised plant name is the rose ICEBERG which started as a mere trade mark (actual name ‘Korbin’).