High on or­na­men­tal grass

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - COLLEEN ZACHARIAS

DEER resistant. Th­ese two words are a pow­er­ful de­scrip­tor and make a good ar­gu­ment for in­clud­ing or­na­men­tal grasses in your land­scape. At Assini­boine Park, home to Win­nipeg’s largest gar­den as well as a deer pop­u­la­tion that has demon­strated a steady ap­petite for a range of plant ma­te­rial no mat­ter the time of year, Mau­rice Lar­son, out­door hor­ti­cul­ture su­per­vi­sor, says deer gen­er­ally leave the or­na­men­tal grasses alone. Of course, there are many other rea­sons for in­cor­po­rat­ing or­na­men­tal grasses into your home land­scape be­sides the prospect of grow­ing some­thing in your gar­den deer won’t eat. Grasses in­tro­duce a tex­tu­ral el­e­ment that not only pro­vides con­trast with other sur­round­ing plants, but con­jure the il­lu­sion of a tran­quil nat­u­ral set­ting, even in the midst of the con­crete jun­gle. Hans De Jongh, Pari­don Hor­ti­cul­tural Ltd., a West Coast-based whole­sale sup­plier to gar­den cen­tres and nurs­eries across the Prairies, re­mem­bers the dis­in­ter­est he en­coun­tered 15 years ago when he first rec­om­mended grasses for use in home land­scapes on the Prairies. At the time, the trend for grow­ing grasses, popular in Euro­pean gar­dens, was slow to take hold in prairie gar­dens. Since that time, in­ter­est has soared in grasses and many Man­i­toba gar­den­ers now make faith­ful use of both peren­nial and an­nual va­ri­eties. Our love af­fair with Karl Fo­er­ster feath­er­reed grass (Cala­m­a­grostis x acu­ti­flora), the 2001 Peren­nial Plant of the Year, is largely due, says De Jongh, to its very strong, up­right habit. When dam­ag­ing winds or heavy rain­falls flat­ten other peren­ni­als, Karl Fo­er­ster grass is ca­pa­ble of quickly re­cov­er­ing its erect stature. Orig­i­nally cat­e­go­rized as zone 5, it has proven it­self as very adapt­able to our zone 3 cli­mate. It is used, though, so in­vari­ably now in res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial land­scapes that it risks overuse. De jongh en­cour­ages gar­den­ers to also con­sider grasses with dif­fer­ent shapes, heights and flower forms. Pan­icum vir­ga­tum Northwind switch grass, 2014 Peren­nial Plant of the Year, forms rigidly up­right olive green clumps of lin­ear fo­liage topped by finely tex­tured green flower pan­i­cles that turn golden in the fall, then tawny brown for the win­ter. With a ma­ture height of 125 cm, Northwind works well as a sin­gle ar­chi­tec­tural spec­i­men or in mass plant­ings, cre­at­ing a liv­ing screen. While Northwind shares a strong, up­right form sim­i­lar to Karl Fo­er­ster grass, one is a cool-sea­son grass and the other is a warm-sea­son grass. Why is it im­por­tant to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence? Cool-sea­son grasses such as Karl Fo­er­ster start their growth early in spring. Growth slows down by mid-sum­mer. Warm-sea­son grasses such as Northwind have a dif­fer­ent growth cy­cle, re­quir­ing warmer soil tem­per­a­tures be­fore their growth be­gins. By mix­ing warm and cool sea­son grasses, De Jongh says it is pos­si­ble to ex­tend the sea­sonal dis­play. Eileen Rosen grows a num­ber of su­perb spec­i­mens of grass in her Charleswood gar­den, quickly un­der­scor­ing for vis­i­tors there are in­deed wor­thy peren­nial op­tions to that reign­ing king of grasses, Karl Fo­er­ster. From Tall Moor grass (Molinia arun­d­i­nacea Skyracer) with its cas­cad­ing leaves and del­i­cate pan­i­cles that nearly dou­ble the height of the plant in late sum­mer to Heavy Metal Switch grass, a warm-sea­son up­right plant with dis­tinc­tive blue-tinged blades and airy flower heads that swish in the sum­mer breezes, Rosen has punc­tu­ated her flow­er­ing peren­nial gar­den with unique character. In ad­di­tion to tex­ture and move­ment, grasses lend con­sid­er­able colour to the land­scape. While I love the tan wheat-like colour of Karl Fo­er­ster in late fall and through­out the win­ter, Mis­cant­hus pur­puras­cens Flame Grass, a warm­sea­son grass, comes into its own in late fall with orange-tinted fo­liage. Although its colour in our zone 3 cli­mate is not as in­tense as one might see in a warmer cli­mate such as On­tario, it il­lu­mi­nates the area around it when other plants in the gar­den have faded. View with the sun be­hind or with a dust­ing of snow cling­ing to the clus­ters of its silky flower tas­sels, and this re­li­ably hardy mis­cant­hus va­ri­ety will have earned a last­ing place in your gar­den. Prairie Orig­i­nals, lo­cated in St. An­drews, is a rec­og­nized source for hardy, na­tive peren­nial grasses. Owner Shirley Froehlich says that cus­tomer favourites in­clude Prairie Dropseed and Lit­tle Bluestem. Fine tex­tured, slow-grow­ing Prairie Dropseed gives ev­ery ap­pear­ance of a dainty, del­i­cate plant but is long-lived and needs very lit­tle main­te­nance. Prairie Blues Lit­tle Bluestem cap­ti­vates with its name alone. With shades of blue-green in sum­mer that turn rosy rust in fall, this one thrives in those dif­fi­cult low-ly­ing moist sites but needs full sun. Froehlich also rec­om­mends Tufted Hair­grass for medium to wet ar­eas, sun to part shade. This medium height grass sends up a cloud of fine tex­tured bronzy-coloured pan­i­cles.

What’s not to love about peren­nial grasses? Gar­den­ers have also dis­cov­ered a pas­sion for an­nual grasses. Re­mem­ber when ev­ery best-dressed con­tainer de­sign in­cluded the es­sen­tial but unimag­i­na­tive dra­caena spike? Mer­ci­fully, when an­nual Pur­ple Foun­tain grass (Pen­nise­tum se­taceum rubrum) de­buted, it soon dis­placed the ever-present dra­caena, chang­ing sum­mer­time con­tainer gar­den recipes and the land­scape for the bet­ter. To­day pur­ple foun­tain grass with its fuzzy pink­ish, arch­ing plumes is the must-have ac­ces­sory, crop­ping up in vir­tu­ally ev­ery con­tainer de­sign. There are oo­dles of an­nual grasses, though, to choose from, rang­ing from ones that ex­plode in fire­works of colour to tow­er­ing majesties or fine mounds. An­nu­als can be a guilty plea­sure, es­pe­cially when you de­sire one of each. John Moore, owner of Wil­liam Moore Farms in Al­berta, grows some of the most unique an­nual grasses on his 100-year-old fam­ily-owned prop­erty, at­tract­ing bus loads of thor­oughly en­chanted vis­i­tors each sum­mer. And he grows his grasses for mere pen­nies. Avail­able as seed pack­ets through his mail-or­der business, Moore sold me on their value within min­utes of talk­ing to him as he de­scribed the fall and win­ter ap­peal of th­ese an­nual grasses. A fea­ture contributor in the newly re­leased 2015 edi­tion of The Prairie Gar­den which pro­vides an in-depth look at grasses, Moore grows an­nual grasses in both con­tain­ers and flower beds. The range of colours is startling and all of the seed heads are dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent. It’s Moore’s use of the an­nual grasses in the win­ter land­scape that is es­pe­cially in­trigu­ing. Moore says the se­cret to en­joy­ing his in­spir­ing se­lec­tion of an­nual grasses is to plant the seed in a con­tainer that is ex­clu­sively re­served for a sin­gle va­ri­ety. Un­ex­pect­edly, Moore rec­om­mends that gar­den­ers wait un­til late June, even late July be­fore plant­ing the an­nual grass seed. The re­sult? A spec­tac­u­lar late sea­son dis­play that picks up where tired flow­er­ing an­nu­als leave off and, although tech­ni­cally dead after the first frost, pro­vides a sus­tained win­ter dis­play that is not only at­trac­tive but also pro­vides much needed food and cover for bird pop­u­la­tions. Fox­tail mil­let, for ex­am­ple, grows to 1.5 me­ters with large droopy seed heads and crim­son fo­liage in early fall. Moore plants a mere three to four seeds per square foot for a dra­matic late sea­son dis­play. Mock rush pro­duces a pro­fu­sion of ex­tremely rigid, dark brown bul­rush­like seed heads that stand for the en­tire win­ter. Moore al­ways cuts stems in fall for an in­door dis­play and says that cop­per wheat and black­berry wheat are other ex­cep­tional choices. It is Mil­let Caber­net, though, with its arch­ing rooster tail seed heads to­gether with turquoise-coloured Teal Wheat grass with long, slen­der bearded seed heads I sim­ply must trial in my mid­sea­son con­tain­ers next year. Imag­ine, Moore sug­gests seed­ing the teal wheat grass in July so that by the time the first frost strikes, the plant will hold its unique blue colour for a rare con­tainer dis­play in cool Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber. How is that for a cheap — but gor­geous — al­ter­na­tive to fall chrysan­the­mums? Con­cerned about seeds pop­ping up where they are not wanted? Moore has never had an is­sue with a vol­un­teer an­nual grass. If you are cap­ti­vated by the grace­ful pres­ence of grasses in your home land­scape, con­sider the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties that an­nual or peren­nial grasses could of­fer as a more in­ter­est­ing al­ter­na­tive to the ubiq­ui­tous petu­nias and marigolds that are still planted on some city me­di­ans. Ex­plore the tan­ta­liz­ing types of grasses and their use in the land­scape in the 2015 edi­tion of The Prairie Gar­den. Visit www.thep­rair­ie­gar­den.ca for more de­tails or plan to at­tend the book launch with guest ed­i­tor Tammy Jensen, Jensen’s Nurs­ery, on Novem­ber 26, 8 p.m. at McNally Robin­son.


Please see Never con­sid­ered plant­ing seeds at the end of June or even as late as July? Mil­let Caber­net, an ex­cep­tion­ally unique an­nual grass with arch­ing rooster tail seed heads, may per­suade you to plant your fall con­tain­ers in mid­sum­mer. Only a few seeds are re­quired for a cheap but stun­ning dis­play. Pro­tect this droopy plant from pun­ish­ing winds or rain­fall.


Of­fer­ing an ex­cit­ing al­ter­na­tive to the ubiq­ui­tous dra­caena spike,

pur­ple foun­tain grass (Pen­nise­tum Rubrum) has es­tab­lished

a firm place in the hearts of gar­den­ers and con­tainer de­sign­ers. Try plant­ing this touch­able

an­nual grass with its dusky pur­ple blades in your flower bed

for a new di­men­sion.


With in­trigu­ing shades of blue­green in sum­mer, Prairie Blues Lit­tle Bluestem cap­ti­vates with vi­brant rosy rust colour in fall. While some grasses pre­fer to not have wet feet, this one is a good choice for those dif­fi­cult low-ly­ing moist ar­eas in the gar­den. Must be planted in full sun, though.


At the cost of just pen­nies a seed, Mock Rush cre­ates an an­nual dis­play that con­tin­ues to look beau­ti­ful even in the win­ter land­scape, pro­vid­ing food for vis­it­ing birds. In­cred­i­bly strong seed heads main­tain their up­right habit no mat­ter what the weather throws its

way. Plant seed in late June for the best dis­play.

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