Splendor in the Grass

Low-maintenance and showy, ornamental grasses lend a spectacular drama to the landscape.

Focus On Gardening

September 16, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Even though the tomato plants have toppled their supports and the melon vines are yellowing, I love this time of year in the garden. Because while everything else is collapsing, the Miscanthus sinensis condensatus, more commonly known as fountain grass, is coming into its own. It stands near the garden entrance like a bulky sentinel. Soon, it will send up magnificent inflorescences that glow bronze and gold in the setting sun.

"Grasses are wonderful because they bloom late in the season and remain very attractive in winter," says landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, partner in Oehme, Van Sweden and Associates in Washington. "In fact, some people like the wintertime look better than summer because they stand out more."

'Hair of the earth'

Ornamental grasses include more than 10,000 named species of true grass, sedges (Carex and bamboo) and rushes like cattails. The distinction between categories has to do in part with moisture requirements. Grasses need little moisture. Sedges, which have triangular stems, ("Sedges have edges" is the helpful mantra) need more, while rushes are usually happiest with slightly wet feet. All are prized for their foliage rather than bloom, though many send up beautiful inflorescenses that rise like flame-topped tapers from a nest of foliage.

Nurseryman, plant breeder and writer Karl Foerster called grasses "the hair of the earth," a description that conjures images of wild clumps of bronzy leather grass, and vast rumpled stretches of streaked Spartina rising from the marshes like a giant on a bad hair day. Grasses are wonderfully versatile and can be used to make a host of different statements -- from bold or funky to iconoclastic or elegant. Short, tufty blue fescues (which remind me of Dr. Seuss characters) can add long-lived color to a border or poke out of pots. Towering Cortaderias (pampas grass) with their gorgeous fall plumes can punctuate a corner or create a screen that whispers in every breeze. Diminutive snowy woodrush (Luzula nivea) can frost a woodland with its tiny white flowers, while a thatch of zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') can beautifully shield a chain-link fence.

One particular standout is the 2001 Perennial of the Year, 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x. acutiflora 'Karl Foerster').

Three feet tall with bright green leaves, it sends up pale pink inflorescences in June that turn gold in autumn and light up the landscape all winter. Its tight growing habit makes it ideal for pots and small gardens as well as for larger vistas. While it was Foertser who discovered this grass (which he called Calamagrostis epigejos 'Hortorum' from the Greek words for 'reed' and 'grass') and introduced it to Europe in his 1939 nursery catalog, it was Wolfgang Oehme who brought it to the United States.

"I first saw it in 1963 in Hamburg," says Oehme, who lives in Towson. "I got just one plant and brought it back and gave a piece to Kurt Bluemel, who is a wonderful propagator. All the pieces in the country today come from this one plant."

Bluemel, proprietor of Kurt Bluemel Inc. Nurseries in Baldwin, is now one of the largest wholesale growers of grasses in the country and also has a mail-order retail business. While Bluemel and Oehme's use of 'Karl Foerster' in their garden designs gradually increased interest in the grass, demand exploded after Oehme used it to landscape the Federal Reserve Building in Washington in 1977.

Allow plenty of room

Generally, grasses prefer full sun, though some like Oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale) and Carex trifida tolerate shade. When planting, consider the plant's mature size or you'll end up with an overgrown thatch that takes over.

"One rule of thumb is to space plants equal to their mature height," says John Bowen of Prairie Restorations in Princeton, Minn. "For example, 4-foot tall plants need to be 4 feet from their neighbors."

Grasses are almost maintenance free. Many benefit from being cut to within six inches of the ground in early spring before green growth starts.

"Miscanthus need to be cut down each year since dead stalks can choke out new growth," explains Paulette Roan of Limerock Ornamental Grasses in Port Matilda, Pa., which grows 180 grass varieties. "But some of the carex you can leave."

Large, mature grasses may need periodic spring division (which is also how they are best propagated), especially if the center of the plant is dead. A sharp ax or spade helps slice through the dense root system, though even with good tools it can be a back-breaking job. Dig up the whole plant, slice it into two or more clumps, then replant. Except in sandy soil and extreme drought, established ornamental grasses rarely need fertilization or irrigation. Unless otherwise specified, most will thrive as perennials here in Maryland, but be sure to ask if hardiness zone isn't specified.


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