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Masses o' Grasses
updated: Jul 31, 2010, 10:00 AM
by Billy Goodnick
Gimme grasses. Gimme blades of green, gold, silver, striped, speckled, ghostly gray, purple. Grasses that fury in the wind and nod in the rain. Enchanted grasses that capture first and last light of day. Grasses of every size: ground cover types to walk on, giants to get lost in.
Grasses fit into every style of garden from Tarzan-meets-Gilligan's-Island-tropical to Muffin-Mouse-cottage.
And the flowers! No, not like your great granny's geraniums, all lipstick red and showy. I'm talking about delicate, smoky puffs of soft purple, or stiff, quaking stalks that sound like a prairie rattler.
Use them in big drifts or pop just one into a perennial bed for an explosion of contrast. Group different types of grasses together to create tapestries of subtle color shifts, or mash them up for high-contrast impact.
Get the idea? You need some ornamental grasses in your garden. If you find that when you're done reading this article, your pulse has quickened (or you've overflowed your drool cup) get these books (preferably at a local independently owned book store): Grasses-Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design by Nancy J Ondra (Storey Books), and The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses by John Greenlee (Rodale Press).
There are too many ornamental grasses in my go-to design palette to cover here, so I'm just highlighting a few to get you rolling.
The first Goodnick family homestead in California was on the corner of Lemona and Hatteras in Van Nuys, cultural hub of the San Fernando Valley. One of the trendy features that cool people were adding to their yards in the 60s was a mounded planter. The good ones looked like a natural landform-ours looked like a mouse trapped under a carpet.
We had a Japanese black pine, tortured into a poor facsimile of a real bonsai, and at the base of the tree, a space filled with blue fescue (Festuca glauca). To the sophomoric delight of my brother David and me, my folks referred to the plants as "hairy balls", due to the grass's fuzzy appearance and tendency to grow in near-perfect hemispheres.
But you don't have to have a mound to have hairy balls. Just plant them in a sunny spot in halfway decent soil, water enough to keep the soil lightly moist and enjoy the soft blue-gray glow they add to a perennial border.
There are two forms of red fountain grass that are commonly seen in our coastal area gardens: Pennisetum ‘Rubrum', which can grow to five feet tall, and its more vertically challenged cousin, P. ‘Eaton Canyon'. The dark burgundy leaves and feather duster flowers make a great contrast when paired with yellow-green foliage or orange flowers.
If you already have, or intend to plant this grass, read and heed-it goes dormant in the winter and the leaves turn brown.
Raise your hand and swear on a stack of Sunset Western Garden Books, "I promise to whack the crap out of this plant, cutting it completely to the ground, leaving not a single stem or blade from the previous year's growth." Trust me. Each spring, the plant will completely regrow with stunning new leaves, instead of having the new growth push through last year's mess.
WARNING! Red fountain grass has an eeeeeevil green-leaf cousin I'll tell you about at the end of this post. Please read it.
As long as we're on the color purple (okay, mauve) check out this late summer-flowering hairy awn muhly (). For most of the year, it's a fine-bladed three-foot-tall delicate grass from the Gulf of Mexico. But come the fall, clouds of tiny, colorful flowers appear. The show lasts four to six weeks, then gradually ages to a lighter shade of pale tan. Bonus-low water needs.
About that Tarzan reference. I'm often asked to create a lush looking garden for clients who are also concerned with water conservation. That's where palm grass (Setaria palmifolia) comes in handy. The leaves are dramatic and have noticeable striations running along the leaf, just like some palm trees. Grown in full sun, expect a four-foot-high by three-foot-wide plant; six by four in shade. It can reseed where you don't want it in moist gardens, but it's easy to stay ahead of it. I have one client who cuts it to the ground once a year to keep it tidy. The plant just shrugs it off and comes right back.
Now for the big guns.
It's hard to keep track of the different species and varieties of this genus, some going by the common names of maiden grass, silver grass and eulalia. But I've never met a Miscanthus I didn't like.
Pictured above is one of the more robust and dramatic specimens-Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cosmopolitan' (no relation to the cocktail), used as a high contrast explosion of foliage framing a glossy garden urn. This photo was taken about six months after planting a five-gallon size plant.
I returned a few weeks ago to help the owner reclaim the urn that had been completely obscured by the foliage. Moral of the story…know the ultimate size of everything you put in the ground. In this case, it should be easy to manage the conflict, cutting away the unwanted stems at ground level. Like most Miscanthus, this one's deciduous, so cut it to the ground in the winter.
Here's a pairing of two forms of Miscanthusat Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden. M. ‘Morning Light' on the left, has a subtle white stripe down the center of the leaf, a feature that pushes the otherwise green foliage over to a creamier appearance. I'm pretty sure the one to the right is M. sinensis ‘Gracillimus', a tall, graceful grass with coppery flowers rising above the foliage in summer. I'm a sucker for subtle contrasts, in this case two plants with nearly identical forms but slightly different colors.
I'm cheating-this doesn't exactly fit my definition of "ornamental grasses" but it's worth discussing. The photograph shows a lawn-to-meadow conversion in its early stages, butting up to a perennial bed of flowers. The "grass" isn't really grass in the botanical sense-true grasses are in the Poaceae family. The dominant ground cover here is native dune sedge (Carex praegracillus), which is allowed to grow naturally, and will likely see a lawn mower only once a year, if ever.
Meadows are becoming popular for reasons that include lower water use, diversity of species, their propensity to attract beneficial insects and their habitat value to birds and butterflies. The main man in the meadow is John Greenlee. I reviewed his new book, The American Meadow Garden, at my Fine Gardening blog. Read the review, leave a comment and you might win a copy. This book's a game changer.
Speaking of other writing projects, the July issue of 805 Living has my story about lawn alternatives. The picture that accompanies the article is this front yard in Santa Barbara's Mesa neighborhood. The design was created by Jack Kiesel, a brilliant landscape architect working out of Ventura. The house is a major remodel conceived by architect David VanHoy, as his family home.
Jack started with the image of a stream flowing through the yard, representing the flow of water with blue fescue, seen here parting into two tributaries surrounding an island of slightly taller and stiffer blue oak grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens). The luscious pink succulents that form the "banks" of the creek are Echeveria ‘After Glow', and along the base of the house Jack used blue moor grass (Sesleria caerulea).
Now about red fountain grass's bad new cousin-just plain old fountain grass. It used to be sold at nurseries, but it's now listed by the California Invasive Plant Council as an invasive plant and should not be sold in nurseries. The seeds that blow from the plant are immensely opportunistic and have invaded roadsides and open spaces throughout SoCal to the Bay Area. The problem is, most people don't know or notice how the plant been spreading not only into their neighbors' gardens (pretty rude) but into sensitive native plant communities where it out-completes plants that are an integral part of the natural ecology.
Another villain, currently under evaluation for listing, is a stunningly beautiful grass by the names of either Texas Needle Grass or Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima). It's beautiful, but I'm seeing it escaping its intended planting spaces more and more.
I wish it would just stay put, because I'd love to include it in my gardens, but I just can't use it in good conscience anymore. Coincidentally, Sharon Cohoon at Sunset Magazine just wrote an article at the Sunset blog titled, It's Time To Stop Planting Mexican Feather Grass in California, praising its "extravagant plumes" while bemoaning its prolific ability to reseed.
If you have these grasses on your property, please consider completely eradicating them, especially if you live near creeks or on the wildland fringes. It might take a few years to stop all the seeds that are now scattered about, but we need to start somewhere.
Rather than end on a downer, let's end on a happy, but mysterious note. I photographed this sweet grass and boldly colored wall outside the National Botanical Garden in DC last year. Haven't identified it. Anyone know what it is?
Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
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