A Blast from the Grass

Design, Garden Therapy Column

I don’t think I need to tell you again how much I love autumn, but it is my favorite time of year.  It always has been, even growing up in Louisiana when it meant going back to school (which I did not like!).   This year it was a bit of a tease as it seemed as if we were not going to have such a colorful fall, but as I sit here writing on October 23, it is still just glorious.  It seems to have gotten a late start, but we have had some amazingly beautiful days and I think mother nature came through with a “really big good shoo”.

I could write tomes about all of the things that I love about fall and how to make the fall garden sing, but every year I am reminded anew of what an important role the ornamental grasses play.  They are so beautiful when they turn their various fall colors and sport their plumes catching the wonderful fall light and lilting in the wind.  Ornamental grasses are a crucial component of my garden and I always try to include a goodly amount in my clients’ gardens.  My wife (uh um & editor) will be the first to remind me (in public) that she had to convince me to purchase our first ornamental grass because I didn’t “get it”.  She may even continue on to say how “I thought it was silly to spend that much money (they are kind of pricey) on an ole pot of grass”.    Well, I fell, and I fell hard; now I am quite the aficionado to the point of being an evangelist.  Some of my clients don’t “get it” initially but I usually succeed in getting them to come around.

There are so many great things about ornamental grasses.  They add structure and texture to the garden while keeping it simple at the same time.  There is something comforting about how the blades are so orderly, pointing up in the same direction and gracefully flaring out.  Then they lift up their stalks, slowly unfurling their seed heads and letting them waft in the breeze showing off amazing delicate textures and colors.  The great thing is that they are innocuous, but nice filler, during the early and mid-summer and then really start to provide interest in the late summer and fall.  They are mostly looking their very best in late October and continue to shine all through the fall and then they still look good well into the winter.

Grasses and sedges come in a wide variety of sizes an shapes ranging from 6 inches to 12 feet tall.  They can be used as screening or ground covers. They range in color from white to almost black and many colors in between with stripes (horizontal or vertical) or without.  There is a grass for nearly every occasion and the work well as specimens or mass plantings; they are also great additions to living or dried flower arrangements.  As far as perennials go, they are very low maintenance:  I cut them back once a year in the later winter or early spring using a hedge clipper, preferably a gas or electric one but the smaller grasses are easy enough to cut back with a sturdy pair of scissors.  A couple of my favorite varieties can flop and need to have some of the outer blades cut off to look tidy but if you don’t plant them to near a path this is not really a problem.   Some varieties need to be divided every 5 years or so and any of the grasses can be divided to create more joy by spreading them around.

There are just so many grasses, it is daunting to even thinking about giving an overview.  If you have never tried grasses in your garden before, there are 4 families that are easy to find and will give you enough variety to spiff up your garden.  Maiden grass or Miscanthus offers some dramatic choices; zebra grass or porcupine grass provides a very tall (6 to 8 feet) dramatic statement and has horizontal stripes.  Morning light is another miscanthus with very fine blades that have a slight white variegation and are a favorite of some of my clients.  I love the “flame grass” variety Miscanthus purpurascens for its dramatic plumes and red fall color.  Miscanthus is not native and is considered invasive in warmer climates but I have never seen it reseed here in the Catskills.

The switch grasses are native and another favorite of mine that do very well here.  I love the red tinted varieties:  Ruby Ribbons, Shenandoah, Rotstrahlbusch or Cheyenne Sky.  There are also the bluish ones with huge clouds of seed heads like Heavy Metal and Cloud Nine and the stalwart very upright and disciplined North Wind.  The little bluestems are only about 18 inches to 2 feet tall and have a beautiful blue color with some red highlights; I particularly like Standing Ovation.  Karl Foerster Feather Reed grass is a must when you want something that blooms earlier and stands tall; I use it in nearly every garden,   Blue fescues are very blue and great for short border plants at the edge of a path or bed as long as it is not too moist and finally Japanese Blood grass, Imperata cylindrica is the most amazing bright red grass from late June until mid-winter.

Grass is a gas!

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