In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
December, 2006
Regional Report

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2272

I love the billowy plumes of this Mexican feather grass.

Ornamental Grasses Bring Life to the Winter Garden

I have long been a fan of ornamental grasses and especially appreciate them now when other perennials look a bit bedraggled. Ornamental grasses are durable plants with graceful foliage and leaves, but their summer appearance is only part of their appeal.

The Beauty of Grasses
Grasses add movement, sound, and color to the garden year-round. They 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 autumn garden.

Feathery Plumes Add Drama
I began collecting ornamental grasses about three 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'm amazed at the height these grasses have attained in their first year. Both will have 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 of ornamental grass in any sunny bed.


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