Category Archives: grasses

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.

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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.

Dry River Beds – Beautiful & Beneficial

dry_river_bed1
Dry river bed down a steep slope

With so many people replacing their thirsty lawns with low water-use plants, I’m getting lots of requests for ideas about what to do with all that empty space. The sky’s the limit when you have a blank slate. Let me get you started.

If your old lawn was in the front you might consider putting in a sitting area for a couple of chairs and a bistro table. Use simple crushed gravel or more formal flagstone underfoot and surround the space with a low seat wall to add a bit of privacy.

Adding a dry river bed is another good solution. A dry river bed can slow runoff, spread it out and sink it back into the soil. Connected to a downspout they keep even more rainfall on your own property. If we get the El Nino storms that are predicted this will be a welcome addition to your landscape.

A dry river bed is a rock-lined swale that uses rounded river rock in addition to vegetation to allow

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Dry river bed with grasses and deer resistant oleander

runoff to soak into the ground. Make sure there is a 2% slope from beginning to end to ensure that water is conveyed away from your house to the desired location. Non-woven geotextile fabric is often used underneath the rock.

You can create a depression or rain garden at the end of your dry river bed and plant it with plants that tolerate wet feet in the winter. Both a dry river bed and a rain garden allow water to sink back into the ground. The plants remove pollutants from the runoff from roofs or other impervious surfaces.

A rain garden might be a simple, shallow depression filled with plants that can flourish in both moist and dry conditions. The size and depth will depend on your how much water you need to capture in a winter runoff

Sometimes a dry river bed will receive so much runoff that a dry well or dispersal pit is installed at the end. If you have a high water table or clay soil the water may not always soak in fast enough and an overflow device like this is needed. The goal is to keep water on your own property and not in the street or the neighbors’ yard.

There are good looking dry river beds as we’ll as bad looking ones. A quick Google image search will show you what I mean. Your goal is to create something that looks like it belongs right where it is. The plants, the accent rocks, the cobble, the location – all need to work together.

If your property has a natural slope follow the natural terrain if possible. You can install a dry river bed on flat land also by creating a channel for the river bed to follow. Keep in mind that even a dry river bed is more interesting if it is not all visible at once. Soft, flowing curves and bends create a natural look.

Start with the rocks and cobble. Rounded river cobble looks most natural for the creek bed. In nature, water flowing down a river would round off sharp rock edges to produce cobble of different sizes. A river never has just one size of rocks and yours shouldn’t either.

Accent rocks can be any type that you like as long as you get a variety of rock sizes and shapes. Use the larger stones to direct and channel water. Placing rocks on the outside of a curve creates a more natural look.

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Pheasant Tail grass along cobble path

As in all gardens there is always a bit of maintenance to keep things looking and working great. Weeding in the first couple of months while plants become established is important. Replenish mulch as needed until the plants grow in.

Periodically remove leaves that have landed in your river bed and reposition rocks moved by runoff to keep your dry creek bed working for you when you need it. Also don’t start your dry creek bed too close to the foundation of your home if that area is flat. You can direct the water through a drain pipe connected to a downspout to a lower starting spot in your garden.

So whether you are adding a dry river bed to add interest to your lawn-free landscape or to double as catchment for winter storm runoff, make yours look like it’s always been there.

What to Do in the Garden in Wintry Weather

toyon-berriesTwas the weekend after Thanksgiving and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a gardener. I should probably do something productive, but what? Should I be good and do a little light weeding? Maybe I can muster up the energy to plant a few more bulbs. Come spring I’ll be happy I did. Then again I could make notes of my gardening successes and not so great horticultural decisions. “I know”, I say to myself, “this weekend I’ll revel in what I don’t have to do in the garden”.

I don’t need to prune trees and shrubs at this time of year. Other than clipping a few OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwell 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.

The season is pretty much over for me 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 that has turned slimy or just plain unattractive but leave berries and seed heads for food and winter interest.

hakonechloa_winter2At this time of year my garden is visited mostly by chickadees, nuthatches and goldfinches. 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.

Other tasks I can put off at least for this weekend include planting wildflower seeds. I see California poppies coming up all over the place. Nature knows when the time is right. Well, maybe I’ll broadcast a few working them into the soil very lightly. I need to hoe off some early weeds that would compete with them. How many calories aren’t burned in light gardening? I might just reconsider not being a total couch potato this weekend.