In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
October, 2005
Regional Report

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My ornamental grasses really strut their stuff in autumn and winter, especially the Mexican feather grass in the foreground.

Masses of Grasses

I have long been a fan of ornamental grasses, but I especially appreciate them late in the season, when my other perennials begin to look a bit bedraggled.

I began collecting ornamental grasses about five years ago and am convinced it has 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 planted these in spring and now I'm amazed at the height they have attained in their first season. Both will have to be moved to keep them from obscuring lower-growing plants in the same bed.

The Beauty of Grasses
Ornamental grasses are durable plants with graceful foliage and leaves, but their summer appearance is only part of their appeal. Grasses add movement, sound, and color to the garden all year-round. Grasses announce the changing seasons 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. These feathery plumes add drama to my garden. Grass blades can catch the slightest breeze, setting off a chain reaction of ripples, waves, and rustling sounds -- welcome elements in my autumn garden.

Standout Specimens
My favorite grasses include ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea), with white-striped green leaves and airy flower clusters. I also like 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 well with other flowers or stands alone as an accent along a border.

Spreading vs. Mounding
Ornamental grasses have either a running or a clumping, mounding habit 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. The clump-forming grasses will grow in very nice, neat mounds. They tend to mix very well with other perennials and will not become invasive. They will increase in girth slowly over time.

The rhizome-forming grasses spread by underground stems and can become very aggressive and invasive. These grasses have their place but it may not be in a well-tended perennial border, since they can soon take over an entire area. Before selecting a grass, be sure you understand how it grows so you won't be planting a future problem.

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 of ornamental grass in any sunny bed.


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