GRASSES WITH GUTS
Unless it’s custom-made for a special place or purpose,
e.g., deep shade or rock garden, a landscape without ornamental grasses simply
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
MISCANTHUS sinensis: Maiden grass
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.
of the popular varieties are conservatively rated as hardy to Zones 5 and 6,
but a few – notably ‘Silberfeder’, Autumn Light’, ‘Purpurascens’ and the
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit
Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’
North Creek Nursery
scoparium Upper Bear Island2 cropt.jpg
grow in surprisingly rugged terrain, like this Schizachyrium scoparium.
Red October Sept 17 004.jpg
Blonde Ambition at FarWest-Medal.jpg
Blonde Ambition Swarthmore2.JPG
'Blonde Ambition' in garden
Emerald Coast Growers
Emerald Coast Growers
Hot Rod (1) stakes PSd.jpg
Emerald Coast Growers
article originally appeared in Greenhouse Canada