Gardens Illustrated
Neil Lucas, Knoll Gardens

Neil Lucas on ornamental grasses and good-sense gardening

Published: September 15, 2022 at 8:17 am
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The indefatigable Dorset plantsman and UK’s leading expert on ornamental grasses, on good-sense gardening and becoming a pioneer in promoting sustainable ways of gardening. Portrait by Justin Foulkes

Neil Lucas has always been a workaholic. As a young man in his twenties, he had a full-time landscaping job, working for the local health authority, alongside a second demanding job tending the grounds of his parents’ hotels in Devon. And he somehow still found time to take an interest in ornamental grasses – and to care for a national collection of Ceanothus.

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So when, in 1994, the family decided to buy Knoll Gardens in Dorset, Neil was undaunted by the Herculean prospect of turning a rather formal, flashy garden attraction, principally geared to serving cream teas to coach-parties, into an innovative, plant-focussed, naturalistic garden. He could see the bones were there: during the 1970s, passionate plantsman John May had transformed an empty carrot field into an exotic arboretum, furnishing it with unusual, predominantly Australasian specimens. Neil found more, which had languished in a forgotten corner of a polytunnel for the intervening years. Out went the peaky rhododendrons, struggling in the garden’s thin, sandy soil; in came paper mulberries and crinodendrons, alongside native spindle trees – and they flourished.

A garden is a creation within the built environment, but within that framework, I began to think how we might mimic the processes we see working in nature.

It was about this time that Neil made his first trip to California, to see Ceanothus growing in its native habitat. Here he was swept away by the unforced beauty and balance of native plant communities. This, he resolved, was the way to make gardens.

“It wasn’t about copying what I saw, but about understanding the processes and the principles that led to that arrangement of plants in that place. A garden is a creation within the built environment, but within that framework, I began to think how we might mimic the processes we see working in nature, to create a garden as you see it today, which to me is ten times more exciting than a traditional garden.”

Since then, he has made many return trips to the USA, researching grasses in their native habitats for his 2011 book, Designing with Grasses. Meanwhile, at Knoll, more and more grasses were introduced, and their close relatives rushes and sedges, as Neil experimented with different ways of planting and grouping them, and testing their tolerance of different conditions. Bit by bit, exotic tender bedding gave way to self sufficient plant communities; formal paving disappeared in favour of narrow bark paths threading through the planting.

The plants are the most exciting element of the garden.

“The plants are the most exciting element of the garden, and if you use them well, letting the plants do the talking, you don’t have to adorn it with anything else. Rather than confining them in a border or a lawn, we give the plants centre stage, and we move around them.”

At the same time as the garden was evolving, Neil was also building up a nursery business specialising in ornamental grasses. He became a stalwart of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, winning ten Gold medals in a row. He insists he never set out to become the UK’s leading authority on the subject. “But if you work with grasses for 40 hours a week for 20 years, you’re bound to learn a lot. And if you work 80 hours a week, you’ll know even more. So we are able to offer people the summation of our experience; to advise what may or may not work, and how best to use grasses to do different jobs in the garden.”

If you work with grasses for 40 hours a week for 20 years, you’re bound to learn a lot.

But unlike many specialists, and despite maintaining a steady flow of new introductions, Neil doesn’t seem to have that acquisitive collector’s passion that distinguishes the true plant nerd. Rather, the thing that preoccupies him is the way that the style of planting he has adopted has such a beneficial effect on wildlife. “I didn’t set out to be a wildlife gardener. I wanted to be naturalistic; that’s what moves me in the morning. And gardening in a sustainable and resource-conscious manner (minimal use of chemicals, reducing water use, not disturbing the soil and above all choosing plants adapted to the conditions) was just good-sense gardening – though now it has become front and centre. But it quickly became obvious that gardening as we did, we were seeing quite an increase in wildlife. So we have set up a charity that is tasked with trying to understand the relationship between our style of gardening and the wildlife we see here.”

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The aim is to share what they learn about plant choice and cultural methods with gardeners worldwide. So although Neil is now 65 years old, and has stepped down after a ten-year stint serving on the RHS Council, he shows no signs of slowing down. “It was suggested that I might like to take things a little easier, so now I’m only doing 12 hours a day, six days a week.” He grins broadly. “Why would you want to retire? If I had a lot of money, I would only want to spend it on a garden. As I’ve got one already, I’ll just continue as I am.”

Authors

Ambra Edwards is a garden writer with a special interest in garden history, and above all, in the people who make gardens.

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