The splendidness of grass

My upbringing probably didn't help. It's taken a long time for me to notice grasses. To really see them. It's easy enough to take them for granted. They are the in-between-everything-else plants. The unidentified greenness that's the background for the plants that grab attention.

But this summer I've been watching our local grasses and am amazed how beautifully designed these commonplace plants are. How tremendously different the green of one kind is from another. And how many other colors than green occur in grasses - how the inflorescences (there's a mighty grass word) can be sometimes gray-violet, sometimes chalky, sometimes ochre or reddish. Wafted by the softest air currents, picked out by sunshine and shadows, it is as if they are a sea of chasing waves under which hidden currents and shoals of invisible fish mass and surge and change direction.

And how splendidly individual each particular grass is, blade and bract, panicle and glume, culm and calyx (the botanical language of grasses has its own wonderful verbal music). The absolute economy of grass stems is what has struck me lately. What could be narrower, more incisively filiform, than a single stem of grass? Not one lacks gracefulness. Each stem is weightless, strong, pliant, adequate, yet so slender and wiry that it takes up no unnecessary space at all.

At home when I was a boy, with gardeners on every side, grass (and it was just "grass") was the archetypal nuisance plant for which there were only two acceptable solutions: mow it or weed it out. Grass was not popular unless short and tidily edged, or withering disconsolately on the compost heap. Grass was the epitome of wildness, a threat to the tame and civilized. The primitive pest out to usurp the legitimate place of the tended and domesticated.

This was much more, I think, than merely a gardening matter. The symbolism ran deeper. There may well have been a suspicion of loose morals about the profligacy of grass. It is so inexcusably ubiquitous, so careless of the company it keeps. It grows in gutters, for goodness' sake! It grows far too fast and much too easily. There is hardly a part of the world, unless it is arid desert or watery ocean, where the stuff doesn't happily put down its roots and throw up its unstinting blades.

Grass is, to sum it up, a great success. "The true grasses, Graminiae," writes Rick Darke, an American landscape-design consultant "are among the most highly evolved plants on the earth. This truly cosmopolitan group is made up of over 9,000 species belonging to more than 600 genera." The German landscape nurseryman Karl Foerster, a great promulgator of the virtues and beauty of the grass kingdom, called it "Mother Earth's hair." A wonderful image. But the native unruliness of hair is something that can trouble the proponents of the fixed and orderly.

This summer, we had an unusually balmy April, warm and dry. And then we had the kind of thorough and continuous rain southwest Scotland (too often) specializes in, and everything shot up with almost tropical zest. Then warmth again. So, this year, our modest tracts of urban wilderness have taken on a rare fullness and lushness.

The trouble is that the same conditions apply to our gardens. I mowed early, with the best intentions of keeping on top of the lawn this year. But there it is, out of control again. I look at it and an inner voice mutters, "I really must get the mower out..." Then another, rather cheeky voice pipes up: "Why? Can't you see how stunningly lovely it looks? Why not just enjoy it?" Then that other voice says, "But what will the neighbors think?" It's a dialogue between convention and rebellion, and at this juncture I'm not quite sure which will win. With a little effort and appropriate tools the situation is perfectly retrievable. But do I want to retrieve it?

Down in the houseless and permissively wild area of common ground, where nature is allowed - even by the responsible city authorities - to run its unkempt course, in the name of biodiversity, I increasingly see a model for what is fashionably known as "natural gardening." This is a fashion much promoted by certain branches of the horticultural fraternity. But apart from our place, no one in this neighborhood has actually latched onto the notion. The line between simple neglect and natural gardening is a particularly fine one, but absolutely crucial. And most of our neighbors seem to feel it's better to be indisputably neat and tidy than adventurously wild and possibly misunderstood.

So far as I know, however, we have not yet been summoned to a meeting of the local community council to answer for our promiscuous horticultural sins, and one neighbor a few years back put me in hope of not becoming a pariah by saying that our garden was "a plantsman's garden." By this I took him to mean that tidiness isn't everything. And if we were ever called to public account for our wayward attitudes, I heard a phrase on a TV gardening program the other day that I might use in self-defense. "Think of your garden," said this advocate of gardens in which birds and insects and wild, wild grasses are encouraged and appreciated, as "a self-sufficient ecosystem."

Yes. I like that. "How's your garden this summer?" "You mean my self-sufficient ecosystem? Fine, fine."

Maybe the voices of the wild, wild grasses will win after all.

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