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GRASSES WITH GUTS

Industrial-Strength Ornamentals

By John Friel

Unless it’s custom-made for a special place or purpose, e.g., deep shade or rock garden, a landscape without ornamental grasses simply looks unfinished.

Whatever the placement, there’s a grass that will love it. Even in shade, species like Hakonechloa macra or Carex pensylvanica can supply the redeeming texture and soft motion that only grasses possess. And on fast-draining slopes where succulents would seem the only likely survivors, you can call on Festuca or Sporobolus.

When harsh conditions are the challenge, here are a few possibilities for your next project.

PANICUM virgatum: Switch grass

This one almost goes without saying. The Illinois selection ‘Northwind’ is one of just 3 grasses chosen as the Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association, an honor whose criteria include suitability for a wide range of conditions and geographical locations.

After decades of selection and breeding, there’s a goodly range of foliage colors to choose from, from steely blues like ‘Dallas Blues’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ to deep maroon reds including ‘Hot Rod’, ‘Shenandoah’, Ruby Ribbons and the British Columbia introduction ‘Blood Brothers’. All should handle winters as cold as Zone 4 and 5.

ANDROPOGON gerardii: Big bluestem

Some plants are hard to kill in nature but surprisingly tricky to grow in captivity. Big bluestem has a well-earned reputation as one tough customer, the go-to grass for reclaiming compromised soil and stabilizing badly damaged sites like strip mines. But you can weaken, if not outright kill it with kindness, i.e., by overwatering and/or -feeding. Once established, it actually prefers to be on the dry and hungry and side.

What Andropogon has NOT been known for is beauty. It’s considered a workhorse, not a show pony. But that’s changing thanks to the breeding and selecting efforts at Intrinsic Perennial Garden in Zone 5 northern Illinois, where Brent Horvath has bred new summer and fall colors into selections like ‘Rain Dance’ and ‘Red October’. The straight species can take it down to Zone 3.

SCHIZACHYRIUM scoparium: Little bluestem

Like its big brother – both were once called Andropogon, until the taxonomists decided that was too easy to pronounce – little bluestem is a sturdy beast, hardy to Zone 3. And it too likes a lean diet or it will lodge, i.e., flop over. (If anyone knows why that’s called lodging, I’d love to hear the explanation.) Creek Hill Nursery selected ‘Standing Ovation’ because, as its name implies, it stays bolt upright when others swoon. I’ve seen swaths of ‘Standing Ovation’ perfectly erect in October, while an older form nearby looked as if deer had bedded down in it.

The straight species, S. scoparium, is tough as nails. On a canoeing/camping jaunt in November, we found it happily colonizing narrow crevices atop bare, windswept, totally-exposed rock islands in the Susquehanna River. All varieties can be susceptible to fungal ailments like rust in high humidity, especially if they stay too wet too long.

BOUTELLOUA gracilis

This one’s not nearly as well known as it deserves to be. Its short stature -- usually about 2 feet (60-65cm) – makes it versatile for a wide range of landscape uses. It can even be mown like lawn, but then you’d miss its cheerful seedheads, set at a jaunty angle to their stems like little pennants, waving airily in the slightest breeze. It’s hardy all the way down to Zone 3, and sturdy enough to be a good candidate for “hell strips,” those deadly hot, neglected, narrow spaces hemmed in by asphalt and concrete. The species has deep tan seedheads and bright gold fall color. The patented variety ‘Blonde Ambition’, with blue-green foliage and paler seedheads, was voted Best New Perennial/Grass at the 2011 FarWest Show.

CALAMAGROSTIS xacutiflora: Feather reed grass

The obvious choice, ‘Karl Foerster’, is the one you’ll see everywhere for the simple reason that it works – and it makes a designer look like a genius. Don’t overlook the variegated, vertically-striped forms like ‘Avalanche’, ‘Eldorado’ and ‘Overdam’, which are also hardy to Zones 4 or 5.

DESCHAMPSIA cespitosa: Hair grass

Many grasses are most effective in masses. Deschampsia epitomizes this phenomenon. Individually it forms tufted clumps, but in a swath its fine flower panicles are a dazzling cloud in late-day sun. If the species is too tall at 4’ (1.2 meters), a diminutive form, ‘Pixie Fountain’ stops at half that. Both can handle at least Zone 4.

A relative, D. antarctica, is one of just two flowering plants native to where its specific epithet suggests. True, Antarctica is south of Canada; it’s south of everything. I don’t know if there’s a Zone Zero, but if there is, it’s probably there.

MISCANTHUS sinensis: Maiden grass

Is the best-known ornamental grass in the US tough enough for Canada? Depends – on which varieties you plant, and where you plant them. If you’re talking about Leamington, Ontario – ‘Canada’s sun parlor’ -- no problem. If you’ve got a contract in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, your options slim down a bit.

Most of the popular varieties are conservatively rated as hardy to Zones 5 and 6, but a few – notably ‘Silberfeder’, Autumn Light’, ‘Purpurascens’ and the 10-foot (3+meter!)

xgiganteus can take it down to Zone 4. Still, some protection couldn’t hurt for the first winter or so.

The famous Toronto Music Garden’s plantings include quite a few grasses, to wit: Miscanthus ‘Gracillimus’ and ‘Malepartus’, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, Pennisetum ‘Hameln’, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, and Imperata ‘Red Baron’. Of course, the garden overlooks Lake Ontario – a giant buffer that keeps the area generally in Zone 6 with microclimates of 7, but also a conduit for some pretty severe storms.

That’s by no means a comprehensive list of grasses with guts, but it’s a good start. Don’t rule out tender grasses like Pennisetum ‘Rubrum’ and ‘Fireworks’, or the bold Napier grasses like Princess Molly and First Knight. Yes, you’ll need to replant – but they’re worth it.

Remember: A tough situation is no reason to cheat at golf, or to skip or skimp on grasses. Play it where you find it.

John Friel is marketing manager for Emerald Coast Growers, one of North America’s largest liner producers. For more information on perennials, specialty plants or ornamental grasses, call 1-877-804-7277, e-mail sales@ecgrowers.com or visit www.ecgrowers.com.

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Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’

Photo: North Creek Nursery

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Grasses grow in surprisingly rugged terrain, like this Schizachyrium scoparium.

Photo: John Friel

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Andropogon ‘Red October’

Photo: Brent Horvath

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Bouteloua 'Blonde Ambition'

Photo: John Friel

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Bouteloua 'Blonde Ambition' in garden

Photo: John Friel

Deschampsia cespitosa

Photo: Emerald Coast Growers

Miscanthus 'Purpurascens'

Photo: Emerald Coast Growers

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Panicum ‘Hot Rod’

Photo: Emerald Coast Growers

This article originally appeared in Greenhouse Canada magazine.