I have fallen in love with a particular species of grass. (No, not that kind of grass, man.. I’m a teetotal great aunt!) I found this grass whilst looking for something to stop the erosion of a steep bank in our brand new garden, which began its life as bare earth a couple of years ago. It was hard to find and we went on a wild vetiver chase. A Kenyan farmer was growing it on a mango farm only 15km from here and I was very excited when we went to pick it up. It won’t grow where there is prolonged cold, and they haven’t really cottoned onto using it in a big way, here in the Algarve, but they should. It’s a wonder plant for anyone gardening on a slope in a dry climate and I’m about to tell you why.
Vetiver or Chrysopogon zizanioides, to call it by its proper name, originally comes from India. In northern and western India, it is popularly known as khus. Its roots are very fragrant and used widely in men’s perfume products, which is why you I can be seen inhaling deeply and swooning with desire every time I dig up a bit of root! Some examples of vetiver used in perfume products include Dior’s Eau Sauvage, Guerlain Vetiver, Zizan by Ormonde Jayne and Vetiver by L’Occitane.The plant can grow 1.5 metres high and form clumps as wide. It has a brownish purple flower, although I have never seen one yet as my clumps are only two years old. Once established it is fairly drought resistant, Unlike most grasses, which form horizontally spreading root systems vetiver’s roots grow downward, 2–4 m in depth. That’s deep! Which is why it has two wonderful properties, it holds back soil, making a natural terrace and it holds in water. In other words, it’s a living terrace wall-and a very pretty one at that!
I bought the grass as “slips” which are the side shoots taken from a living plant. I made a bit of a mistake planting them in Autumn during a rather cold damp spell and they sulked for quite a long time, but as soon as the weather warmed up, away they went. They should be planted in two rows along a contour line and within a year or so, they will be strong enough to form a terrace to hold back earth and water.
I quickly saw the advantage in my vegetable garden which is on a slope. I didn’t want to make stone walls, so have planted lines of vetiver and I plan on making lasagna beds behind them. The other advantage is that you can trim the hedges to any height and use the cuttings as a very useful mulch. In fact if I had any water bison they would eat the cuttings as fodder, but I don’t think a water bison would be very conducive to a beautiful garden; the chickens are bad enough.
And speaking of chickens, they are descended from Indian jungle fowl, and love hiding amongst the clumps during the heat of the day. I am thinking of using hedges of plants as living chicken proof fences down the bottom part of the garden where my chickens have free range.
Propagation is easy by taking slips from established plants. They do well with a little organic manure to get them started and away they go! The most commonly used commercial genotypes of vetiver do not produce seeds which are fertile which means they don’t spread widely in the garden and are easily controlled.
One of the other benefits of vetiver is that it cleans the ground of pollution such as wastewater contaminated with chemicals or heavy metals. A wonder grass indeed!
You may want to know where to source plants from and I’m sorry but I can’t help you much. Mine aren’t quite big enough yet to be giving any away. The Kenyan farmer has gone back to Kenya, but I did see some at the Mediterranean Garden Society plant Fair recently. There is an organisation on the web which might be able to help you with suppliers here http://www.vetiver.org/ and they have a Facebook page too, with lots of examples as to how vetiver is used across the world. https://www.facebook.com/groups/9168832759
I find vetiver one of the most useful plants in my garden. So put that in your pipe, but don’t smoke it!