Built to Last – Part 1

– Posted in: Garden Design

Imperata cylindrica Rubra Feb 08I’ve been trying to stay cheerful about the glories of the winter garden, but it’s getting harder. If the days were actually as warm as they look from inside, I’d be sharpening my shears and scythe, firing up the brush mower, and reducing all of the remaining stems and seedheads to mulch. Many of the lingering perennials and grasses outlived their usefulness weeks ago, and it’ll be a relief to see them go. But there are a few sturdy survivors that I really have to admire for their sheer tenacity. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they’re all ornamental grasses.

The photo above shows Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’) on February 17. It loses its stunning red foliage color by the end of the fall, but the leaves hold up amazingly well through the entire winter. Below is golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), looking quite lovely on November 26. By February 17, the elegantly arching effect wasn’t nearly as noticeable, but it’s still not too bad, considering. (It really does look better than you’d guess from the photo.)

Hakonechloa Nov 06 and Feb 07

Even better, I think, is ‘The Blues’ little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). We haven’t had much snow this winter, but we’ve had plenty of freezing rain, and you’d think that these slender stems would be flattened after the first good icing. Below is the same clump on November 8 and on February 17. Its current look isn’t quite as full or color-rich, but again, I’m prepared to admire its persistence.

Schizachyrium scoparium The Blues Nov 07 and Feb 08

Of all the long-lasting grasses, though, the gold star has to go to the switch grasses (Panicum virgatum). By far the best is ‘Dallas Blues’, at left below, which still looks outstanding on February 17. Below right is ‘Rotstrahlbusch’, growing just a few feet away. It’s not quite as outstanding but still quite respectable-looking on the same date.

Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’ and ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ Feb 08

‘Northwind’ runs a close second to ‘Dallas Blues’ for excellent winter structure, though it can vary from year to year. Below left is how it looks on February 17 this year: still upright but somewhat tattered. Below right is the same cultivar in February of 2005. If memory serves, we had more snow but less ice that winter, so that may account for the difference.<

Panicum virgatum Northwind Feb 07 and Feb 05

Until ‘Northwind’ came along, ‘Heavy Metal’ was my favorite where I wanted a strongly upright grass. Over time, though, it spreads more at the base, so the clumps become broadly upright instead of narrowly upright. Still, it’s a great-looking grass through the growing season, especially in groups. Below is ‘Heavy Metal’ last September and October, and then on February 17.Panicum virgatum Heavy Metal Sept 07 Dec 07 and Feb 08

I think I may spare these grasses for a few more weeks, while I gradually start cleaning up those that didn’t hold up so well. By then, I’m sure it’ll be a relief to cut these down too, to make way for the fresh new growth I’m dying to see.

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Joy February 20, 2008, 10:51 am

I am a very big fan of ornamental grasses, even in my small spaces I find a way to fit them in .. and actually be able to find those which grow in my zone 5b.
They provide amazing contrasts to my perennials and require so little care. I couldn’t have a garden without them now !
Very good post !

Thanks, Joy. I’d love to see which grasses hold up best for you, and for other garden bloggers too, if you care to share!

Frances February 20, 2008, 12:10 pm

Your grasses still look fairly neat and pretty for winter interest. I am excited about the “Heavy Metal” that was purchased last year. It is small, mail ordered from High Country, but if it ever looks like yours, well, that is the vision. Lovely post.

Frances at Faire Garden

You’ll love ‘Heavy Metal’, Frances. And knowing your tolerance for black-and-blue combinations, I suggest underplanting it with Ajuga ‘Metallica’ for a pairing that really rocks. (I can’t believe I just said that…)

Ken from Sweden February 20, 2008, 3:24 pm

Hi Nan!
We like grasses to, but I dont like sorts who spred out so much, I like them to be on one spot.
They make a big tribiute in the garden, and I like the sound when the brees past thrue them.
And by the way, we cant stop reading your book, it´s like our garden bibel now.
Ken & Carina

I definitely agree, Ken; grasses that spread by creeping roots can be a worry. I’m glad there are so many wonderful clump-formers to choose from. And yes, grasses are among the very best plants for creating sound effects!

Joy February 20, 2008, 4:37 pm

Hi again Nan .. you did ask ? LOL
My show stopper favorite is my Karley Rose Fountain Grass .. I have had it for about 4 years .. The only one I have lost was a simple one Miscanthus Sinensis Strictus “Porcupine” grass .. I don’t know what happened !
The others I have
Karl Foerster Feather Reed
Avalanche another cultivar of that feather reed but with varigation.
Blue Fescue
Blue Oatgrass .. Helictotrichon sempervirens
Pennisetum Alopecuriods “Hameln”
Huron Sunrise (miscanthus sinensis family )
Hakone “Aureola” grass .. beautiful gold for a shady nook !
And a very mini varigated sister to “Little Bunny” .. lost the tag on that one .. jeez !
I love these grasses and would love to squeeze more in when I get a chance !
Thanks for asking Nan : ) it made me remember summer !

I did ask, Joy, and thanks for taking the time to answer! You clearly are a fellow grass fanatic. By the way, the variegated version of ‘Little Bunny’ is ‘Little Honey’.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 20, 2008, 4:57 pm

Thanks for the photo comparisons. I have the straight species of Little Bluestem, but I might have to add a Panicum (I love the common name “Panic grass”.)

The straight species of little bluestem is terrific, though I give ‘The Blues’ the nod for consistently russet winter color. You definitely do need at least one Panicum. ‘Dallas Blues’ gets pretty big (6 to 7 feet tall); if you need something shorter, ‘Shenandoah’, which is much finer-textured, with red-tipped green leaves by midsummer, is about 40 inches.

Jim February 20, 2008, 5:22 pm

I’ve been cutting down my grasses in the fall every year after they’ve passed. Yours look so good in the winter. I think this coming year I’ll wait until spring. One less chore for the Fall, one more for spring…

I did think it was suggested to cut in the Fall. I supposed they’re dead and don’t care and keeping them whole through the winter might protect them a bit.

I don’t think the plants care much one way or the other. Sometimes I cut a few down in late fall to use for winter mulch; mostly, though, I wait until early to mid-spring.

gina February 20, 2008, 10:20 pm

i love the grasses, nan! i’m trying to decide on some to try this year. i love the purple muhley (sp?) grass but i don’t think i can use it here in zone 5.

I think you’re right about the muhly grass, Gina; it’s not supposed to do well even in my area(winter-wet Zone 6). But there are so many other beauties to try. I’d bet you’d get lots of suggestions for grasses better suited to your conditions if you asked on your blog!

Anna--Flowergardengirl February 21, 2008, 12:27 am

I’ve grown Japanese Silver grass, Purple Fountain grass, and this year I want to try China Love grass. They offer good bones for the landscape. I like to use annual Purple Fountain grass cause it grows more quickly than the perennial type and it’s seed pods last longer. If someone has a pic of China Love Grass in their gardens, would you share with me? I’m trying to figure out where to put it.

I hope someone has a picture for you, Anna. I haven’t tried that one yet!

Lisa at Greenbow February 21, 2008, 5:57 am

I am not a big grass fan. I guess because my lot is so small. However you are about to make me a convert. I will have to be looking at my garden a little differently now anyway. I have more light due to losing the trees this winter.

I was thinking about this page alignment. Today I have found the preceding post to align at the top of the page beside the sidebar. Your post is at the bottom of the sidebar. I wonder if you aligned your picture to the right instead of the left if it would appear at the top of the page beside the sidebar instead of at the bottom??

Ok, Lisa, I now have the lead photo on the right instead of the left. Let me know if that makes a difference for you. I can’t tell, because the layout has always looked ok on my monitor.

Elly Phillips February 21, 2008, 7:54 am

Nan, I just had to laugh when you wrote that ‘Heavy Metal’ looks best in groups. Led Zeppelin, perhaps? Thanks for brightening my day!

That was totally not intentional, but it is pretty funny! I’m glad you pointed it out, Elly.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens February 21, 2008, 2:28 pm

I like seeing your comparisons over time.

Unlike most Austinites, I’ve not had much luck with ornamental grasses. I probably have too much shade in my yard. But I keep trying. The Mexican wire grass is doing the best right now. I love it but when neglected it can look quite weedy.

You know, I was just thinking today how much more I use grasses now that I have full sun. But then, there are so many shade-lovers that I’d love to grow and can’t anymore. Ah, well…

Sylvia February 22, 2008, 6:07 am

I find it interesting reading about the different climates. Our brown days have gone. Spring has come early (I live by the coast in Southern England), the crocus and daffodils have joined the snowdrops, it is unusual for them all to flowering together. We have had a few frosts so the camellias vary depending on how protected they are from the morning sun. Some are lovely while others are brown but more buds to come. I even have some early tulips flowering – it is more like late March here, especially as the weather has been sunny. I wonder what will be flowering in March…

Thanks for sharing a taste of spring, Sylvia. Here in PA, we’re all white this morning, looking more like January than late February. We have snow dropping, but no snowdrops yet.

Joy February 23, 2008, 11:10 am

Thanks for letting me know about the name for my Little Honey ! .. I’m sure hubby thinks it is a rogue grass setting foot in my garden bed .. but he knows better than to TOUCH ! haha
Joy : )

He’s obviously well trained, Joy – good job!

Angela (Cottage Magpie) February 27, 2008, 2:17 pm

I’m so with you on winter! I try to enjoy the “winter garden” because it’s that or insanity, but I always feel like I’ve been holding my breath for 6 months once Spring arrives for sure. Any day now, any day….
~Angela 🙂

Right, Angela – we have only those two alternatives to handle the interminable winter. Oh, wait – there is a third: Escape to Florida, as some of our fellow bloggers have done!

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