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Swaying in the Breeze


Published: 07/17/2012

by Richard Rex

Old nursery catalogues are useful for showing how garden fashions change

and which of today’s plants are tried and true specimens. Interestingly, there is scant

mention in them of ornamental grasses – even in catalogues as recent as the 1980s

yet over the past 10 years, these plants have become firm favourites in the

Toronto-area garden. And why not? They are easy to grow, have a long season and

provide useful, even dramatic, accents. Some ornamental grasses are perennial

and some are annual. Some varieties disappear in wintertime, others simply dry out

and continue to grace the landscape right through to the following spring, when they

can be cut down to make way for new growth. As well, many of them are useful

for flower arrangements, either when fresh or air-dried.

All of the ornamental grasses are worth trying, and some have the bonus of being

native to Canada. Most have a clumping nature of growth, meaning that they

spread best by division, not naturalization. In other words, you must do spadework

to increase your stock. Let’s start in spectacular fashion with Pampas Grass

(Cortaderia selloana/ argentea), which can reach 2.5 m or more

in height and is also known as Feather Grass.
Best grown as a specimen, its long silvery or pink plumes grace any garden,

and it can work well as a foundation plant, providing it gets at least a half-day

full sun. The plumes look great in dried floral arrangements and the plant itself

will spread up to 2 m wide. As with many grasses, Pampas Grass

can be grown from seed planted directlyin the soil, plus it has the advantage of

being lightly fragrant. Since it is not reliably hardy, it may be substituted by

Saccharum ravennae, which is also known as Hardy Pampas Grass.

To confuse matters, Pony Tail Grass (Stipa tenuissima) is also sometimes

known as Feather Grass, due to its profuse feathery panicles of light gold. It is, however,

smaller and more delicate looking than Pampas Grass, rarely growing taller

than 1 m. It is sometimes referred to as dwarf Pampas Grass,

though there is actually a distinct plant of that name.

Again, Pony Tail Grass may be grown from seed, though I do not recommend starting

it indoors. Rather, in late April or early May, sow where

you want it to grow. You may wish to mix the seeds with sand before scattering them around, for better dispersal,

then rake them in lightly. Keep them wellwatered till germination and during any drought, at least until they are well-established.

Now to confuse matters even further, there is the excellent Feather Reed Grass

‘Karl Foerster’ (Calamagrostis acutiflora), which was voted Perennial Plant of the

Year for 2001. It grows 1.5 m to 2 m tall and sways gracefully in the breeze. It

comes to seed early and holds its stems high till the first heavy snowfall. It is well worth trying and can add a lot

of interest alongside clumps of Monarda (Bergamot or Bee Balm).

As its name suggests, Cloud Grass (Agrostis Nebulosa), creates the illusion of a miasma and can look attractive when

clustered in a bed along with brightly coloured flowers. This is an annual grass

that may be harvested for flower arrangements or dried for use in winter bouquets.

It needs lots of direct sun for best results and should not be allowed to dry out.

One of the most versatile of the ornamental grasses is the perennial Blue

Fescue (Festuca glauca). Common in parts of Europe, its wonderful silvery-blue

foliage grows in clumps to 30 cm tall. It relishes full sun and drought conditions,

making it highly suited to the rock garden and containers.

Blue Fescue also makes a good edging plant and provides a superb contrast to

most ground covers, including Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia caespitosa) and such

plants as sedums, lavender and dianthus. Tufted Hair Grass, incidentally, will take

more shade than most grasses and will reward you with delicate flowers in early

summer if the soil around it is kept uniformly moist.

Fountain Grass (Pennisetum ruppelii/ setaceum) is a year round favourite,

thanks to the graceful, arching leaves from which its name derives. It

has the advantage of bearing rustcoloured flower heads of up to 40 cm
long, which can look most pleasing in the early evening light,
especially against a light-coloured wall. It doesn’t require a lot of care but,

though perennial, it may not be reliably hardy in regions north of the city.

A grass to delight the children is Hare’s Tail (Lagurus ovatus), with fluffy heads

just 5 cm tall. You can cut the stems and let children paint them, or use them in floral

arrangements. All they need for good growth is a sunny location and some

humus in the soil.

There are two versions of Sweetgrass worth considering: Vernal Grass

(Anthoxanthum odoratum) and Vanilla Grass
(Hierochloe odorata). The first comes from Europe and on hot, sunny

afternoons smells of new-mown hay. The second is native to North America

and is burnt by aboriginal people in sacred ceremonies. Unlike most other

grasses, (H. odorata) spreads readily, sometimes too readily in a sunny, welldrained

soil, so locate with care. Both types grow to about 50 cm.

Catgrass (Avena Sativa) is often sold in pots as an indoor treat for cats but

does better when planted outdoors, especially if divided every few weeks

during the growing season. You can grow it in a pot but it must be watered every second day at least,

since its root system is dense and soon dries out.

Panic Grass (Panicum violaceum) is grown for its bloom, which is a terrific

addition to fresh and dried floral arrangements.

When drying, harvest the blossoms before they mature, as they will continue

to develop while drying. Some varieties turn a deep burgundy in fall, for additional

interest. Among other easy grasses are Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea), whose

tall, slim stalks bear delicate flowers throughout the summer, and Ribbon Grass (Phalaris

arundinacea picta), which does well in a poor soil. Its thinblade foliage is striped green and white

and it spreads fast to make a useful groundcover, though it can become invasive. And if you want to bring the country

into the town, consider growing good old-fashioned Wheat (Triticum) as an ornamental grass. It is golden in colour, with a graceful flower head, and provides an interesting con-versation piece. It grows chest-high and dries well for flower arrangements.

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