In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
January, 2010
Regional Report

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Ornamental grasses such as maiden grass (miscanthus) have their own winter beauty.

Blades That Look Sharp Year 'Round

Sometimes they stand tall, front, and center as a low-maintenance border. For example, bringing color, texture, and privacy around a pool. Sometimes they provide background or simply fill a difficult space. We see more types of ornamental grasses more and more often -- in gardens, in the landscape, in parking lot islands, for erosion control along roadsides.

Walking around my neighborhood after a recent snowfall, I stopped to admire a huge clump of tan, arching maiden grass covered in light, glistening snow. That's when you really notice the fragile, wispy seed heads. This graceful corner accent ornamental trumps nondescript yews that are way too pervasive in front yards.

Besides their beauty, the mid-size to tall ornamental grasses -- maiden grass, pennisetum, panicum, giant reed, big blue stem, and feather reed grass provide shelter for wildlife.

Feeding birds (gold and purple finches especially) is better done with native grasses: big and little bluestem (Andropogon gerardii and Schizachyrium scoparium), inland sea-oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), riverbank wild rye (Elymus riparius), and wild rye (Elymus virginicus). Birds seem to like to nestle and feed in Hameln's fountain grass (Pennisetum a. 'Hameln') and dwarf maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Adagio'). Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) is food for butterfly larva as well as birds.

Most ornamental grasses tolerate difficult growing conditions and neglect. Maintenance is minimal: cutback in spring, division (with plenty to share) when they're overgrown. Digging up large clumps of miscanthus though can involve a pick or a maddock (hefty equipment short of dynamite and a backhoe) so best not to let them too big.

Showy Shorties
Keep your eye out for the latest in carex -- for containers, edging, border plants. There are more than 50 to choose from. These tufted sedges are downright cute; some look like punk hair. New Zealand hair sedge (Carex comans) comes in 'Frosted Curls' with ruffled tips on thin, silvery leaves and 'Bronze' with pink-tinted coppery, fountain-like foliage. For yellow-gold highlights in the shade, soft spiky clumps of golden variegated sedge (Carex elata 'Aurea' (C.e. 'Bowles Golden') bring their own new-age drama. At 10 by 20 inches, 'Gold Fountains' (Carex dolichostachya 'Kaga Nishiki') is another shade garden must. It is evergreen -- a cascading mound of narrow, dark green leaves with a golden edge. One of many blue-green sedges, Carex glauca 'Blue Zinger' is an 18-inch swirl of shade-tolerant wavy foliage touted as deer-resistant.

Sweet flag (Acorus spp.) has wide color range -- green, variegated, white-striped, gold, variegated gold. Its small size, soft mounds, and upright or arching leaves make for attractive groundcover and container plants. Acorus likes wet feet so is especially happy on a pond edge or in a water garden.

Not Grass
We often see short, dark green lilyturf (Liriope spp.) and think "grass." The spikes of white, purple, or violet flowers are a clue to its real identity. If you divided its dense clumps, you'll see leaves sprout from small bulbs. Lilyturf is really in the lily family. Native to shady forests in East Asia, lilyturf grows well in sun or shade, average soil, and USDA zones 6 to 11.


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