In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
April, 2004
Regional Report

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I like combining grasses of different heights and foliage colors, so I repeat these groupings throughout my garden.

Graceful Background Dancers

I have long been a fan of ornamental grasses. Perhaps it's because their textures, shapes, and subtle foliage colors remain attractive throughout the winter months. Or perhaps it's because I'm captivated by the sight and sound of ornamental grasses as they sway gracefully in the breeze. Whatever the reason, there's no arguing the fact that ornamental grasses are durable plants, and I find them attractive every month of the year.

The Beauty of Grasses
Grasses announce the changing season better than any plant I know, sending a few tentative blades up in early spring, gathering momentum and getting larger as the weather warms, and producing a flush of tender foliage by early summer. As the foliage matures, it often changes in color and texture. The big payoff comes in mid- to late summer when feathery flower spikes appear. Grass blades can catch the slightest breeze, setting off a chain reaction of ripples, waves, and rustling sounds -- welcome elements in my garden anytime.

Feathery Plumes Add Drama
I began collecting ornamental grasses about six years ago and am convinced it's been a good investment. Based on personal experience though, you can't believe everything you read about their characteristics! Canary grass (Phalaris canariensis) and feather grass (Stipa pennata) are not the small tufts pictured in catalogs. I was amazed at the height these grasses attained in their first year. Both had to be moved to keep them from obscuring lower-growing plants in the same bed.

Standout Specimens
My favorite grasses include ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea), with white-striped green leaves and airy flower clusters; and the graceful, arching, slender leaves of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra). Both make good companions to brightly colored flowers, especially the big, bold blossoms of poppies and zinnias. Another absolute favorite is Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), a fine-textured, 12- to 18-inch-tall plant that combines with other flowers well or stands alone as an accent along a border.

Spreading vs. Mounding
Most ornamental grasses have clumping, mounding habits and range from a few inches to several feet in height. Some spread and readily reseed. Unless you want to chase errant grasses all over your garden, choose your specimens with caution. All grasses thrive in full sun and fast-draining soils. They're reliably pest free, and their plumes make great additions to cut-flower arrangements. I cut back dead foliage at the end of winter to renew the plants. Aside from rampant growth when the location suits them, I can't think of a single reason not to include a few specimens in any sunny bed.


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