Down by the river near our English home in rural Northamptonshire is another of the new agricultural crops springing up around the country – Miscanthus (elephant grass). Miscanthus has been grown as a crop in Britain for 20 years and this local planting for five or six, I think. People often ask not only what it is but what it’s for. And then I got word of a new planting, it looks as if it’s only been in since the spring, and the farmer has thoughtfully surrounded the whole field with bird-friendly annuals, mainly sunflowers and amaranthus.
The species used, Miscanthus x giganteus, is a sterile cross between the M. sinensis familiar as a garden plant, and M. sacchariflorus which has sometimes been used as a (startlingly over invasive) screen. It makes steadily expanding clumps, produces no self sown seedlings to engulf the hedgerows and is cropped in the spring using a forage harvester after the previous winter’s growth has dried. Needless to say, the crop attracts a useful European Union subsidy.
But why, you ask, plant a whole field of miscanthus? What’s it for? Well, here’s a list of some of the things it’s used for (sometimes blended with sawdust of other timber by-products):
- shredded, as garden mulch
- in pellet form, as a fuel for domestic and industrial boilers
- bailed or shredded, as a fuel for combined heat and power units or power stations
- compressed in briquettes, for domestic fuel
- baled, as bedding for horses, cattle, poultry or pets
- compressed and blended, for the manufacture of bio-degradable plant pots
- manufactured, into chipboard, plywood or MDF and into insulation materials
Useful stuff. And of course, once it’s matured and growing to 2-3m in height, it’s the best place anywhere in the world to play hide and seek. The only problem is that in a field of 20, 40 or 60 acres – your little treasure might be a little hard to find at the end of the game.
There’s a useful overview on growing Miscanthus as a field crop on this Irish website.