In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
November, 2010
Regional Report

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The colorful foliage of these ornamental grasses will remain until after the first frost of the season.

Fall and Winter Interest with Ornamental Grasses

I have long been a fan of ornamental grasses, and I especially appreciate them in the fall when my other perennials are looking tired and worn. 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 announce the changing seasons better than any plant I know, starting with a few tender blades in early spring, gathering momentum as the weather warms, becoming full and lush by early summer. Grass blades catch the slightest breeze, setting off a chain reaction of ripples, waves and rustling sounds, which are welcome elements in my garden. As the foliage matures, it often changes in color and texture. The biggest payoff comes in late summer and early fall when their feathery flower spikes appear.

Feathery Plumes Add Drama
I began collecting ornamental grasses about six years ago and am convinced they are a good investment. I've discovered that you can't believe everything you read about their characteristics, though. Canary grass (Phalaris canariensis) and feather grass (Stipa pennata) are not the small tufts pictured in catalogs. At least, not in my garden! It's amazing how tall and wide these plants can grow in a single year. My first experience with these plants was a disaster. Both had to be moved to keep them from obscuring the lower-growing plants in my flower bed. Be sure to give them more room than you think they'll need when you plant them in your garden.

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 teouissima), a fine-textured, 12- to 18-inch-tall plant that combines well with other flowers or stands alone as an accent in the landscape.

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. I've found that Miscanthus and Pennisetum usually do not produce viable seeds. This makes them good choices if you're concerned about volunteers popping up in your garden.

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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