Category Archives: grasses

The Dog Days of Summer

Despite how hot it’s been,  the "dog days of summer"  just came to an end August 11th.  Where did this expression come from?

Some say it signifies hot sultry days not fit for a dog, but the dog days are defined as the period from July 3 through August 11 when the Dog Star, Sirius, rises in conjunction ( or nearly so ) with the sun.  As a result, some felt the combination of the brightest luminary of the day (the sun) and and brightest star of the night ( Sirius) was responsible for the extreme heat that is experienced during the middle of the summertime.  Since Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky it’s reasonable to guess that it adds some heat to the earth but the amount is insignificant.

The name "dog star" came from the ancient Egyptians who called Sirius, the dog star, after their god, Osirus, whose head in pictograms resembled that of a dog.  They called the period of time from 20 days before to 20 days after the conjunction "the dog days of summer"  because it coincidentally fell at the time of  year when it was very hot.  We now know that the heat of summer is a direct result of the earths tilt. Now you know… the rest of the story.  

 

 

Containers

If your deck or patio needs some perking up about now, plant up a new container or add to your existing ones.  Almost anything goes when it come to combining plants in containers and nearly any type of container looks good with the right plant.  I have over 250 in a sprawling garden of containers arranged like a border on my deck, under trees, around my front door, down my driveway… places  where planting in the ground just isn’t possible.  I can move them farther apart, up, down, to the front or to the back to create a display that is always evolving.  I add spots of vivid color where I need it and texture where I want it.  I have the flexibility to remove anything past its prime or bring forward a fragrant plant when I want to really enjoy its scent up close.

So what looks great in containers?  One simple strategy I use a lot is to put just one plant in a pot.  A single perennial like a flowering maple looks good year round.  My asparagus meyeri really looks dramatic in a low ceramic pot. The princess flower and my enormous hosta sieboldiana (which I’ve named Bob) can be hidden behind other pots in the winter when they are dormant.  Succulents, like a large hen and chicks, are always real standouts in a pretty container as are grasses.   I have a Sango Kaku Japanese maple in a large cobalt blue glazed pot as the thriller in one vignette with chartreuse green barberry  and a fragrant heliotrope as fillers and lysimachia aurea and purple calibrachoa as spillers.  I like burgundy foliage so Sizzling Pink loropetalum  is one of my favorite background plants.  It looks great with Japanese forest grass and black mondo grass.  The purple leaves of oxalis triangularis works well in this color scheme, too.  My displays change every year and also as the summer progresses.  I live in partial shade but if you live in the sun try the rich colors of canna lily, black-eyed susan, kangaroo paw, aeonium and old fashioned variegated geraniums.

Although I take a more-is-merrier approach to container gardening, numbers alone don’t mean much.  Five pots are enough to create a dramatic composition on a porch or patio.  The trick is not how many pots you have, but what you do with them.  I use overturned nursery or clay pots,  boxes and plant stands to stage my plants so short but showy plants can be placed up off the ground at eye level.  Containers of plants placed in front hide the risers from view.  By elevating pots with various props, I create combinations that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.  

Staging can also be an effective way to display garden art like sculpture , fountains and handsome empty pots.  It’s easy to place ornaments where they look best -a place of honor – by raising them up in your grouping.

 
When planting mixed containers never use more than three plants colors, two is sometimes enough.  That doesn’t count green, unless it’s lime.  Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done.  You want the pots to look good right away.  Big pots, at least 16" across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.  

Whatever plant or container you choose, you’ll enjoy the results now that the dog days of summer are over.

Originally posted 2008-08-12 06:28:28.

Ornamental Grasses & Grass-like Plants

Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ with convolvulus trailing over side.

Looking for plants that require minimal care, only occasional grooming, just enough water to meet their needs and are deer resistant? Plants that add beauty, movement and sound to your garden? You may already have some ornamental grasses and grass-like plants but this is a good time to add a little more pizazz and beauty to your landscape.

Diseases and insect pests are rarely found on grasses They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. Grass-like plants such as lomandra, dianella, cordyline, carex, restio, phormium, Japanese Forest grasss and liriope are some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. A garden just isn’t complete without the architectural qualities they provide.

Pheasant Tail Grass

There’s a reason old favorites like Karl Foerster feather reed grass is so popular in landscapes. It doesn’t get too tall or overpowering in the smaller garden and its upright habit is neat and tidy. Pheasant Tail grass is another popular grass that is carefree and long-lived. It grows to only 3 by 3 feet, is not fussy about soil and looks good anywhere you plant it. It combines beautifully with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage and is extremely drought tolerant once established.

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 – a grass-like plant

A grass-like plant that I think should be used more often in gardens in libertia. Narrow, rigidly straight leaves form compact clumps that are especially useful i poolside, accent planting and thrive as well in containers. They require only moderate watering and can add a warm punch of color,

Dianella combined with loropetalum, pieris and primula
Dianella with loropetalum, pieris and primula

Another plant that is finding a place in the low maintenance garden is dianella. With 18 inch clumps of soft blue leaves, light blue flowers with lavender-purple fruits dianella cerulean ‘Cassa Blue’ is just one of this group of perennial flax lily that makes a great addition to the garden. Dianella intermedia grows fast with whitish blossoms during the summer months. The berries which follow are deep purple-blue and highly ornamental They can be especially attractive filling a shady nook though this plant can thrive in either su or shade.

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.

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.