Caring for Ornamental Grasses


rolling_hillsI’ve lived in California my entire life and have traveled on many a back road enjoying the scenery, the trees, the flowers, the birds. Discovering a new road, the road less traveled, is half the fun of any journey. It was close to sunset recently when I found myself on one of those roads. Actually I kinda got lost on my way to Aunt Rosemary’s house and ended up on the back side of Mt. Diablo. Serendipity, the occurrence of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way, was on my side.

With the winter sun skimming the tops of the rolling hills and a meadowlark announcing his presence in the row of walnut trees growing along the road I was reminded of the seasons here in the mild winter areas of California. The setting sun filtered through the grasses tawny in late fall. These grasses are just one of the many ornamental grasses that grace our gardens. With winter coming on, some go dormant, some are evergreen and some are deciduous. How should you take care of the grasses in your garden?

If your grass is big like a miscanthus and now sports that beautiful wheat color as it goes dormant, you can enjoy the show to provide structure to the winter garden as well as seed and cover for wildlife. Come February or early March, before new growth starts from the base, tie the stems into a bundle with twine or a bungee cord and prune down to 10 inches using sharp hedge shears or electric hedge pruning shears.

But what about those other grasses and grass-like plants? How do you keep them neat looking and fresh throughout the year?

If it’s small and goes dormant, like Japanese forest grass, Japanese blood grass or Fountain grass, you hakonechloa_winter.1600can prune them anytime now until early spring. I like to leave them to provide winter interest through the holidays but there will come a day in January when the winter storms will start blowing the leaves everywhere. Then I’ll prune the stems down to 3″ for the shorter grasses or 6″ for the taller fountain grasses. If I prune too low there’s a danger of cutting into the crown of the plant. Moisture then tends to settle into the crown and can rot them out.

Then there are the spiky grasslike plants like New Zealand flax or Cordyline that stay evergreen but can look ratty after a long, hot summer or cold winter. Prune these anytime for cleanup or size reduction, midspring for rejuvenation.

Select the oldest or most damaged leaves and cut them from the base out one by one. To control size, cut out ton more than 2/3 of he tallest leaves at the base. If your plant has severe damage and needs total rejuvenation wait until midspring and cut down to 1 foot. It will regrow in about 4 months but may need retrimming as the leaves grow out.

carex_oshimensis_EvergoldLastly, there are those small grasses that stay evergreen such as Blue oat grass, Pheasant tail grass, Acorus, Mondo grass, Carex, Mexican feather grass and Liriope. Like the flaxes, clean up can be done anytime but pruning for rejuvenation should be done early to midspring.

If your grass is looking a bit disheveled, comb out the old stems. Rubber gloves work great for this as the spent foliage clings to the rubber and comes out easily. If you need to go for the big chop to bring it back to its former glory, wait until early spring and cut back by 2/3. Cutting back too much will allow moisture to gather in the crown and cause rot. Rejuvenation pruning shouldn’t be done more than every 2-3 years as small evergreen grasses have less vigor than grasses that go dormant. Mexican feather grass is the exception and can be pruned back hard anytime its needed.

So that’s all there is too it. Decide if your grass is large and goes dormant, small and goes dormant or large and stays evergreen and take it from there for beautiful ornamental grasses year round.



Garden Tasks for Late Fall


honey_mushroomsIt came out of the earth suddenly, pushing soil and plants that were in it’s way to the side. Just a bit of moisture had allowed this large clump of honey mushrooms to emerge and start its path to reproduction. At this time of year when the trees are turning the color of flame and some have already gone into dormancy it seems the earth is growing silent. Winter will soon be here. For nature life continues. Look around you and be thankful for the bounty, the restfulness, the time to enjoy these beautiful mountains that we call home.

The Giant Pacific salamanders in the forest duff are resting up for next seasons batch of young. Maybe now that we’ve had some rain the deer will have something to eat other than my garden. young_buckAs the weather cools, my garden plants are looking past their prime. The seed heads that remain invite small song birds to feast on what remains. Chickadees hop from plant to plant. They even find something to eat in the Japanese maple leaves and the old dried hydrangea flowers that have turned a dusty rose color. Spotted towhees scratch for seeds buried under fall leaves. I’m always slow to cut down and clear everything away but  there are some things I should be doing this autumn. I’ll pay if I leave everything for next spring when it all needs doing at once.

First, I’ll cut back perennials such as hostas, asters and mums, which collapse into a gooey mess and shelter slugs and snails. I’ll pick up and dispose of diseased  leaves, especially under the roses to prevent pathogens from spreading. Coneflowers, ligularia and rudbeckia flowers and ornamental grasses can stay to contribute winter interest for me and the birds.

I’ll leave as much foliage as possible to provide cover, protection from cold winds and foraging spots for other critters and good insects. I’ll wait to cut back the stems and foliages of not only the grasses but evergreen perennials, salvias, hardy fuchsias until spring. There are few things as rewarding as seeing your winter garden turn into a sanctuary for wildlife.

As weeds emerge I’ll spend a little time here and there keeping up with them. There are 300 dormant weed seeds per square inch of soil and I don’t want to add to that.

I don’t have the space to plant a cover crop so I like to top dress the soil with compost or bark chips. I have a few new trees that need staking to secure them through the winter. This prevents breakage and allows new roots to grow deep and stable. Be sure to set the stake on the windy side of the tree and tie loosely so it has some wiggle room This movement stimulates the trunk to grow thicker. Come next summer the trees will  probably be ready to stand on their own. I don’t want to keep them staked longer than necessary. Also check any trees or shrubs that were transplanted and are still tightly bound to a stake. Remove or reset the stake so the trunk will not become girdled as it grows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA word about all those leaves that cover the ground, the lawn and the perennial beds at this time of year. You can build up your garden soil by running a mower over them to chop into smaller pieces and spread over the soil. Worms and other organisms will start to break them down right away. Next spring dig what’s left into the soil. If you leave more than an inch or two of whole leaves on top the rains will compact them into a soggy mess and prevent oxygen from reaching the soil. If you have too much of a good thing when it comes to leaves, it’s best to put them into your green waste can.

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long.  They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. My abutilons are a winter favorite for them in my garden. Keep your feeders up year-round and keep them clean.



Let Your Garden Sing


waterfall2Each time I’m in my garden it’s a different experience. The familiar buzz of hummingbird wings brings a smile to my face. Sometimes it’s the silence that gets my attention. Where are the chirping songbirds or the raucous scolding of the jays? Where is the wind, the rustling of the forest grass leaves? Other times the quaking of the redwood boughs a hundred feet up makes the garden come alive like giant wind chimes. Sound adds dimension to the garden.

I consider the music of the garden as well as plants and people when developing a design. I’m not talking about the popping sounds that corn makes when they don’t have enough water. Or as it matures, increase in weight, the leaves losing moisture and becoming more brittle, a puff of wind causing the stalks to strike each other and produce a spectrum of sound. Or when lupine seed pods explode with enough force it sounds like someone throwing stones against a fence.

No, I’m talking about how water, wind and wildlife play a big role in the music of a garden. Even the sound of crunching as you walk on a gravel path brings your garden to life.

The sound of moving water in the garden not only attracts birds but soothes the soul. It can drown out unwanted neighborhood noise or sound as subtle as a violin. I enjoyed a table top fountain with a bamboo deer scare for many years until the raccoons discovered it. The sound was iOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAncredibly soothing on a hot day. Pondless waterfalls are easier to maintain if you aren’t interested in fish or water plants. Small recirculating garden fountains can be placed on your deck or patio or tucked into garden beds. Urn and jar fountains offer a hint of bubbling water and the soothing sound of flowing water to your landscape.

Japanese_forest_grass 2A friend of mine has a different wind chime at each corner of his house. He can tell the direction of the wind, the intensity, even potential changes in the weather just by listening to the chimes. There are bamboo chimes available that produce a peaceful relaxing sound or musically tuned metal tubes or those made of wood or shells. Enhance the wind with these lulling sounds.

The wind is different in each season. Summer breezes cool you and also catch on a billowy plant to bring not just sound but movement. Ornamental grasses are the stars of the garden when the wind rustles through the leaves and seed heads. Loose shrubs like butterfly bush, hydrangea, spirea, spice bush and bush anemone also sway in the wind and bring sound to the garden. Allow a larger plant like Japanese maple to spill into the path where you will brush against it slightly to create that sound you hear in the forest when you walk. Enjoy the rattle of seeds in pods like those of iris as they dry during the summer.

The sounds of wildlife are my favorites in the garden. Any type of pond or waterfall with some plants growing in or adjacent will attract tree frogs. Buzzing insects collect nectar and pollinate flowers. My two simple birdbaths are a magnet for varied thrush, spotted towhees, chickadees, warblers, kinglets and goldfinches. The rest of their time they are performing expert insect control elsewhere in my garden .Hummingbirds are frequent visitors as they fight for territory and feed on spiders and nectar rich flowers.

Let your garden to make music.



Fall Blooming Perennials


Every garden changes over time.  Gardening is a process, a constant experiment so don't get discouraged when things don't go exactly as planned. For example, a cool spring may cause some things to bloom later while a warm, dry winter speeds up plant and flower development. Maybe that pink flowering tree now conflicts with the red blooms nearby. Whether it's caused by climate change or just the weather, take comfort that your garden can grow more beautiful each year with a little tinkering now and then.

At this time of year look to the following plants combined with ornamental grasses coming into bloom to carry your garden until autumn color from trees and shrubs kicks in. Go for dramatic extravagance with color combinations than inspire.

Russian sage.  Tall, airy, spike-like clusters , create a lavender-blue cloud of color above the finely textured gray leaves. This perennial has a long blooming season and the cool color of the flowers is stunning in the fall garden. There are several varieties available with different shades of soft blue to violet blue flowers. Most grow 3-4 ft tall. Little Spire Russian sage is a shorter, upright selection that doesn't flop over in the landscape. It adds a sense of lightness to the garden. You'll love the cool color on a hot day.

Aster x frikartii 'Moench'.  The lavender-blue flowers on this perennial can get 3" across and cover the plant with blooms from early summer to fall, even longer in mild winter areas if spent flowers are removed. They attract butterflies and make a good cut flower. This reliable, drought tolerant plant thrives in full sun, grows 2- 3 ft tall and is mildew resistant.

Agastache which is also called hyssop attracts hummingbirds, butterflies and bees to your garden It's also deer resistant. Aromatic foliage on Blue Fortune smells like peppermint-lemon when brushed or crushed. The flowers on Electra are vivid orange. Then there's licorice mint hyssop, orange hummingbird mint hyssop, anise hyssop and a whole slew of hybrids of every color in the rainbow- lavender, pink, apricot, orange, purplish, coral, powder blue, tangerine, red – you name it. Agastache is easy to grow in full sun or partial shade and is drought tolerant. Just be sure to provide excellent drainage.

Salvia-  the workhorses of the garden. Their long blooming season makes them right at home in the fall garden. There are some 900 species of salvias.  They are the largest genus in the mint family. Choose from many new cultivars like Dancing Dolls with rose and cream colored flowers. Another good choice is a Ca. native hybrid called Starlight that blooms with long white flower wands that really stand out at twilight.
There are lots of Salvia greggii varieties available such as Pink Frills, Golden Girl and Neon Dancer which has vivid rose and red flowers.  Salvias are drought tolerant and deer resistant (really). Although they tolerate some shade they looks best when planted in full sun. To encourage repeat bloom trim off spent flowers stalks when they start to look rangy. They will rebloom for months.

Another common plant from this huge family is the Mexican bush sage.  So showy that people mistake them for huge lavender plants. They are vigorous and upright growing to 3-4 feet tall and as wide.  Velvety purple and white flowers cloak foot-long stems. Salvia Santa Barbara is a compact selection that grows 2-3 ft high and spreads 5 ft wide. They stop blooming only when frost hits them.  To limit plant size and renew flowering stems, cut back close to the ground before spring growth begins.  You can't go wrong with these plants if you have a large space to fill.  Hummingbirds love them, too.

Perennials should be planted in multiples, not only for beauty's sake but also for lower maintenance. Let your trees and shrubs lend structure and year round interest with an explosion of perennial color that gets all the attention. Just don't hesitate to change what needs adjustment or transplanting if needed to a better location.

Next Page »

Gardening Tips for the Santa Cruz Mountains is proudly powered by WordPress and themed by Mukka-mu