By Mel Bellar
I don’t think I need to tell you again how much I love Autumn: It is my favorite time of year. Even growing up in Louisiana when it meant going back to school (which I did not like!) it was the best. This year Autumn was a bit of a tease as it seemed as if we were not going to have such a colorful Fall, yet as I sit here writing on October 23, it is still just glorious. It may have gotten a late start, but we have had some amazingly beautiful days. Mother Nature came through with a “really big good shoo.”
All the things that I love about Fall could comprise a tome. You can make the Fall garden sing in many ways, but one aspect that I am reminded anew of yearly is what an important role the ornamental grasses play. They are incredibly beautiful when they turn their various colors and sport their plumes, catching the wonderful Fall light and lilting in the wind. Ornamental grasses are a crucial component of my garden and I always try to include a goodly amount in my clients’ gardens. My wife (uh um & editor) will be the first to remind me (in public) that she had to convince me to purchase our first ornamental grass, because I didn’t get it. She may even continue on to say, “Mel, thought it was silly to spend that much money (they are kind of pricey) on an ole pot of grass.” Well, I fell, and I fell hard and now I am quite the aficionado to the point of being an evangelist. Some of my clients don’t get it initially, but I usually succeed in getting them to come around.
In praise of the ornamental grasses…. They add structure and texture to the garden while keeping it simple at the same time. There is something comforting about how the blades are so orderly, pointing up in the same direction and gracefully flaring out. Then they lift up their stalks, slowly unfurling their seed heads and letting them waft in the breeze, showing off delicate textures and colors. While they are an innocuous and nice filler during the early and mid-summer, they really start to provide interest in the late Summer and Fall. However, they are looking their very best in late October and continue to shine all through the Fall and still look good well into the Winter.
Grasses and sedges come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes ranging from 6 inches to 12 feet tall. They can be used widely as screening or ground covers. They range in color from white to almost black with many colors in between including stripes (horizontal or vertical) or without. There is a grass for nearly every occasion, and they work well as either specimens or mass plantings. As a bonus they are great additions to living or dried flower arrangements and, as far as perennials go, they are very low maintenance: I cut them back once a year in the late Winter or early Spring using a hedge clipper, preferably a gas or electric one; the smaller grasses are easy enough to cut back with a sturdy pair of scissors. A couple of my favorite varieties can flop and need to have some of the outer blades cut off to look tidy, but if you don’t plant them too near a path this is not problem. Some varieties need to be divided every 5 years or so and any of the grasses can be divided to create more joy by spreading them around.
There are so many grasses, it is daunting to even think about giving an overview. If you have never tried grasses in your garden, there are 4 families that are easy to find and will give you enough variety to spiff up your garden. Maiden grass or Miscanthus offers some dramatic choices: zebra grass or porcupine grass provides a very tall (6 to 8 feet) grand statement and has horizontal stripes. Morning light is another Miscanthus with very fine blades that have a slight white variegation and are a favorite of many of my clients. I love the “flame grass” variety Miscanthus purpurascens for its showy plumes and red fall color. Miscanthus is not native and is considered invasive in warmer climates, but I have never seen it reseed in the Catskills.
The switch grasses are native and another favorite of mine that do very well here. The red-tinted varieties: Ruby Ribbons, Shenandoah, Rotstrahlbusch or Cheyenne Sky are spectacular. There are also the bluish ones with huge clouds of seed heads like Heavy Metal and Cloud Nine and the stalwart, very upright and disciplined North Wind. The little bluestems are only about 18 inches to 2 feet tall and have a beautiful blue color with some red highlights; I particularly like Standing Ovation. Karl Foerster Feather Reed grass is a must when you want something that blooms earlier and stands tall; I use it in nearly every garden. Blue fescues are very blue and great for short border plants at the edge of a path or bed, as long as it is not too moist. Finally, Japanese Blood grass, Imperata cylindrica is the most amazing bright red grass from late June until mid-winter.
Grass is a gas!~
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.