Category Archives: grasses

Twas the Week after Thanksgiving

If working in the garden Thanksgiving weekend is not high on your list then you’re in luck. Here are some reasons why along with other information you need to know.

In the category of news you can use. A reader shared with me that a plant I mentioned a couple weeks ago in my column about hedges- Italian buckthorn or rhamnus alaternus – has evolved and is now considered invasive by the California Invasive Plant Council. Seems that over the past 3 to 4 years Italian buckthorn ‘John Edwards’ has overcome the reproduction invasion barrier of being entirely dioecious (having male and female plants separate). The shrub has become a serious problem in riparian and other wildland areas. Birds love the berries which are apparently all female. Thank you to my faithful reader for sharing this information with me. Don’t plant this shrub.

Being that November has was so dry up until the day before Thanksgiving I looked up the current El Nino rain prediction for this winter season. Interesting enough I found lots of info on the surfline website in addition to NOAA. Sounds like we’re still on track for California’s midsection to have an equal chance of more precipitation than other years and warmer than usual from December to February. Can’t come soon enough for me.

For me the growing season is pretty much over except to enjoy what’s left of fall color and the ornamental grasses waving their seed heads in the wind. A lot of perennials are dying back but I’m not in a hurry to neaten things up. The seed heads left in the garden supply food for birds and other creatures while the foliage provides shelter for the plant in the cold and frost. Remove anything when it turns slimy or just plain unattractive but leave berries and seed heads for the birds and winter interest.

Lesser Goldfinch

At this time of year my garden is visited mostly by chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, purple finches and warblers. They will spend the winter here and I’m doing them a big favor by not cutting back brown foliage containing nutrient-rich seed heads. Some of the reliable seed producers that I won’t have to clean up this weekend include artemisia, aster, coreopsis, penstemon, sedum, lupine, salvia, black-eye Susan, coneflower, phlomis, monarda, agapanthus and grasses.

Chickadees gather hundreds of seeds in fall and early winter and store them in hiding places to ensure themselves a food supply later in the season. They are a remarkable bird that we take for granted being so common. I read in Audubon magazine a couple years ago that a chickadee weighs about as much as a dozen paperclips but their body is large for their weight. This means they have to ramp up the number of hours they devote to feeding. At night chickadees cram themselves into tiny cavities and shiver, burning the day’s fuel to keep from freezing.

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long. So In addition to the plants in my garden that supply nectar I keep my feeders up year-round and keep them clean. They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. In addition to nectar rich natives like mahonia my abutilons are a winter favorite for them.

And I don’t need to prune trees and shrubs at this time of year. Other than clipping a few well placed branches to use in a holiday wreath, I’m off the hook for this task right now. Deciduous trees are still in the process of losing their leaves and are not fully dormant. Evergreens shrubs and conifers can be trimmed lightly but most shaping is done when they start growing in late winter or very early spring.

Ornamental Grasses in the Fall

Throughout the year I am asked for design help and plant suggestions but especially in the fall I hear the request, “I’d love to add more grasses to my garden.” There’s no doubt that the movement and sound of ornamental grasses in the landscape adds another dimension to our experience. Many grasses and grass-like plants use less water than other plants, too.

Giant Feather Grass focal point near spa

Grasses are versatile plants and come in all sizes- from ground-huggers to shrub-like clumps. Some form upright tufts, some look like mop-top mounds and others form arching fountains. They easily adapt to the same conditions most garden plants thrive in, rarely needing any special soil, preparation or maintenance. And more subtly, their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as no other plants do.

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.

Giant Feather Grass

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture. light and movement of a grass would be perfect, look to the taller varieties. Stipa gigantea or Giant Feather Grass is a semi-evergreen grass which grows 4-6 ft high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach 7 feet tall. The flowers open early in June as silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2 inches of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

Ornamental Grasses for Every Type of Garden

One of the most dramatic sites in a garden is an ornamental grass backlit by late afternoon sun. They seem to come alive as their tawny flowers spikes glow and sway in the breeze. Their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as few other plants do.

Stipa gigantea

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth

Pheasant’s Tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana)

habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, libertia, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw, lomandra, and liriope to name just a few.

I have to admit it’s the showy accent grasses that always get my attention. A personal favorite is Stipa gigantea or Giant Feather Grass. This semi-evergreen grass grows 2-3 ft high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach 6 feet tall. The flowers open early in June as silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

I like variegated plants and two-tone grasses combine well with many other garden plants. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is an especially refined and elegant ornamental grass. Fine leaf blades are green with clean, paper-thin, white margins that give the plant a silvery cast when viewed from a distance. It is luminous when backlit by the early morning or late afternoon sun. Morning Light tends to keep its upright shape better than some other cultivars and rarely flops. The reddish bronze plumes that appear in late fall are spectacular.

libertia perigrinans

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2″ of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

Pruning Ornamental Grasses

Who doesn’t love a garden filled with the movement and beauty of ornamental grasses especially during the fall? But how do you take care of them after the show is over for the season?

lomandra
Lomandra and NZ flax in mixed planting

When I recently received an email asking what to do with an ornamental grass that had already turned that soft tawny color I figured it was time to brush up on how to care for them. To prune or not to prune? That is the question.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grass-like plants like chondropetalum, New Zealand flax, kangaroo paw and lomandra that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer and only occasional grooming. Some flourish with just enough water to meet their needs while others need regular irrigation. Diseases and insect pests are rare and they are not attractive to deer. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

japanese_blood_grass
Japanese Blood grass – small and goes dormant

Basically, grasses and grass-like plants fall into 4 different pruning types: Large or small types that go dormant and large or small types that stay evergreen.

Large grasses that go dormant such as miscanthus and calamagrostis are pruned yearly in late fall to late winter. It’s best to hold off on pruning as long as possible to preserve the winter interest and to provide food for birds. When they turn brown and start shedding it’s time to prune. Gather the blades together with a bungee cord or rope and cut down to 10 inches.

Small grasses that go dormant such as Japanese blood grass or fountain grass should be pruned yearly at the same time. Don’t cut them too close to the crown or you risk losing a few clumps. Cut those under 3 feet tall down to 3 inches and those that grow taller down to 6 inches.

guardsman_flax
The Guardsman- NZ flax large & stays evergreen

Large, evergreen grass-like flax and cordyline can be pruned anytime to cleanup and resize but rejuvenation should be done mid-spring. When pruning to freshen up the foliage, select the most damaged leaves and cut them out at the base. If your plant is overgrown or suffered winter damage, prune severely in mid-spring cutting off all the foliage at the base. Tall cordyline varieties can be cut off a few feet from the ground and they will re-sprout below the cut or from the base.

Lastly, small evergreen grasses like carex, acorus, blue oat grass and blue fescue grass can be cleaned up in spring by putting on rubber gloves and combing through the grass. If this kind of cleanup isn’t enough you can reduce the height by two-thirds and in a couple of months they will look good again.

Looking at Grasses in a New Way

Calamagrostis Foliosa
Calamagrostis Foliosa

I regularly receive plant availabilities via email listing what’s looking good in that wholesale nursery for the week. Besides being a good reminder of plants that have fallen through the cracks in my memory many times I’m inspired to think of them in a new way. With spring around the corner – yes, hard to believe but true – this is the time to rethink your landscaping again. From saving water to saving time there are lots of ways to change what you have in your landscape to make it look more inviting and pleasing to the eye.

Tired of looking at all that moisture conserving but uninteresting mulch you spread last year? Whether you are replacing the lawn you allowed to go brown last summer or just want an expanse of water smart low grasses or grass-like plants for an area I’ve got some great suggestions for you.

 

carex meadow
carex meadow

If you want a lawn substitute that you can walk on but don’t need to use it as a play area there are California native and prairie meadow grasses that will be perfect for this kind of situation. They need little irrigation and even less mowing. Some can be planted from seed, others from plugs or sod. Good choices include Idaho fescue, Calif. and red fescue, carex pansa, Berkeley sedge, June grass and Hall’s bentgrass. Occasional shearing keeps them looking best but they may be left alone with no mowing at all. Weed control is important during establishment but a healthy stand may be sustained with virtually no weeding after that.

Other meadow grasses to walk on include buffalo grass and carex texensis. They stay short and can be either left alone or mowed every so often. Tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet. Scotts Valley Water District has a good list on their website of lawn substitute grasses and other water conserving plants.

Other areas in your landscape might look great with an expanse of a grass or grass-like plant with a slightly taller profile. Here are some of my favorite ornamental plants that are water smart, have beautiful foliage and often showy flower heads to sway in the breeze and bring life to the garden.

Moor grass or more specifically Sesleria ‘Greenlee’ is a new-ish introduction. This evergreen, clumping blue-green grass grows to 1 foot tall and a little wider with rose-purple flowers in spring and summer. It tolerates a wide range of conditions from wet to dry, sun to shade and is hardy down to 0 degrees. Lovely planted in swaths to give your garden that restful feeling.

Libertia peregrinans
Libertia peregrinans

One of my very favorite small grass-like plants is Orange Libertia. Native to New Zealand this stunning plant is great back lit and planted in masses. Growing to just under 2 feet tall, the leaves are green in the center and bright orange along the margins. Lightly fragrant, pure white blooms appear in the spring. This beauty takes the sun or light shade and has moderate water needs. It’s hardy to about 15 degrees and forms colonies by rhizomes.

Blue oat grass is another small grass that add elegance to borders, containers and moonlit gardens. In late spring graceful stems bloom with delicate oat-like flowers that age to tawny brown by midsummer. Ruby grass, festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’ and Chinese fountain grass are also small grasses that can be massed together for a stunning effect.

Plants with grass-like foliage like mondo grass, liriope, small phormiums and many of the dianella or flax lily are also water smart and can be used alone or in groups.

Time to start thinking of new ways to save water and time this growing season.

Great Grasses for the Santa Cruz Mountains

Sawtooth Mtns
Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Recently I took a road trip to see some of our great country. The Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming have been on my bucket list for a long time. In addition to the amazing places I visited and the buffalo, elk and bald eagles I got to see up close and personal I was able to take a look at passing gardens of people who live in harsh climates and get some tips on plants that survive and thrive in these conditions. If you are looking for tougher plants for your own garden to add this fall planting season here are some ideas.

Some of these plants are old favorites and some are new. There’s a reason a plant is used over and over again. It’s reliable and trouble free. Plants that are have low water requirements are a must, too.

Throughout the small towns I passed through as well as larger ones like Jackson Hole, Wyoming I again and again

rudbeckia hirta
rudbeckia hirta

saw Karl Foerster feather reed grass planted in landscapes along with the Black-eyed Susan variety Goldsturm.

Feather reed grass tolerates heavy clay soil unlike many of the other ornamental grasses. Forming a clump only 2 feet wide it can fit in a smaller garden without overwhelming other plants. Even in light shade it blooms early in June with tight, vertical flower stalks of feathery, purplish-green flowers which turn golden as the sterile seeds mature in summer. Feather reed grass looks good throughout most of the winter providing interest until cut to the ground just before the new shoots appear.

Besides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of Red Fountain grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Eaton Canyon is a dwarf variety that is root hardy down to 20-25 degrees. Plant it in full sun and irrigate little to occasionally. Be sure to cut this grass back in late winter even if it hasn’t suffered much from frost. The new growth will look so much better for this treatment.

Another grass I’m hearing a lot of good things about is called Pink Crystals or Ruby grass. Melinis nerviglumis has pretty blue-green foliage that forms a one foot tall clump turning puplish-red in the fall. Very showy pink flowers rise above the foliage in the spring and summer. This grass will tolerate considerable dryness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Pheasant Tail grass

Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.

phormium_Guardsman
Phormium

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw and lomandra ‘Breeze’.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare and they are not attractive to deer. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.