Category Archives: grass-like plants

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.

What Landscape Designers Grow in their own Gardens

alstroemeria_Inca-Ice.1600It probably won’t come as a big surprise to you that I have a lot of friends that are also landscape designers. We get together to talk plants, garden design challenges and plant problems while enjoying good food along with a little wine thrown in for good measure. Recently I had the opportunity to visit one of these friends and although I was only there briefly to pick up something I couldn’t help but ask about several of the beautiful plantain her own garden. Some of her favorites include those with interesting foliage and texture and that flower over a long season. Maybe some of these plant ideas will work in your own garden.

Being winter and all I was immediately drawn to the hundreds of soft apricot and creamy yellow flowers covering a 3 foot wide Peruvian Lily. This selection of alstroemeria, called Inca Ice, is much shorter and compact that the taller ones that can be somewhat floppy in the garden. Alstroemeria were named by Carl Linnaeus, often called the Father of Taxonomy, for his friend and student Klaus von Alstroemer. Native to South America, the summer growing types come from eastern Brazil while the winter growing plants are from central Chile.

Peruvian Lily spread slowly outward from rhizomes and grow in full to part sun. They are hardy to 15-20 degrees and can tolerate dry conditions although they look best with irrigation. The Inca series grows 2-3 ft tall and can be covered with flowers from spring to late fall or winter if the weather is mild. The flower stems are long enough for cutting. This variety also comes in light orchid, pale yellow and white with red and green markings. What’s not to love about this plant?

Tucked next to the blooming Inca Ice Peruvian Lily, a clump of bright, Festival_grass-leucodendron.1600burgundy red Festival grass complemented the soft yellow of a Leucodendron discolor and a variegated Flamingo Glow Beschorneria. I was not familiar with this variegated agave relative with its soft-tipped chartreuse striped leaves. I found out this beautiful plant is drought tolerant, hardy to 15 degrees and will bloom with 5 foot pink stalks with reddish pink bracts.

Other plants that boast more foliage color than flowers brought this winter garden to life. Several varieties of helleborus just starting to show pink, white and rose color were surrounded by the brilliant chartreuse-yellow foliage of sedum Angelina ground cover. A variegated Japanese Lily-of-the-Valley shrub grew nearby getting ready to bloom soon.

Beautiful bright pink, cream and green variegated Jester Leucodendron bordered the driveway. I’ve seen this plant also called Safari Sunshine in nurseries. With its smaller size of 4-5 feet this evergreen shrub has showy, rich red bracts that sit atop the branches now in late winter and lasting into spring. Drought tolerant like Safari Sunset and deer resistant, too, leaucodendron are hardier than other protea.

Every interesting garden has good bones. It has focal points, texture, repetition and unity among other elements. My friends garden is no exception. A lovely caramel colored New Zealand Wind Grass dominated another area allowing my eye to rest for a while. I wish they would quit renaming this plant that used to be stipa arundinacea but is now anemanthele lessoniana. The name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but the effect is beautiful in the garden. I’ve always called it Pheasant Tail grass but I could find no reference as to why this common name is used. Life used to be simple before DNA sequencing!

So if you’re in the mood to add a couple of interesting plants to your garden, take a tip from what a landscape designer grows in her own garden.

Ormanental Grasses Take Center Stage

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

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 Orange_libertiaor 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-a restio, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.

So let’s say you are putting in a new patio and want a few low grasses as accents between some of the pavers. A variety like Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass, with it’s creamy white foliage that turns pink in cold weather, would look great here. You could also use Ogon sweet flag for dense clumps the color of buttery in a shady spot, black mondo grass or blue fescue grass for even more color.

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture of a grass with light and movement would be perfect, look to taller varieties to achieve this. Miscanthus purpurascens or Flame Grass grows 4 to 8 feet tall in the sun. Their magenta leaves turn to milky white in winter. Maiden grass sports narrow upright leaves 5 to 8 feet tall and creamy flowers. Their seed heads float and bounce in the the breeze. Planting them just above the horizon allow you to enjoy their swaying and dipping backlit at sunset.

Japanese_Blood_grassBesides 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 it’s fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Another favorite of mine for color is Japanese blood grass, You’ll love this grass when you place it so the sun can shine through the brilliant red blades. This grass spreads slowly by underground runners and grows in sun or partial shade forming an upright clump 1 to 2 feet tall. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.

Are sections of your garden hot and dry? Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAamend 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. This grass is extremely drought tolerant once established. 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.

For a touch of whimsy, you can’t beat fiber optic grass. This grass-like sedge from Europe and North Africa looks like a bad hairpiece. You can grow it at the edge of a shallow pond or display it inside in a pot on a pedestal to show off it’s flowering habit. Seeing is believing with this one.

These are just a few of the places where grasses can enhance and add beauty to your garden. Fall is the perfect time to plant a new one.