Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fall is for Grasses

Perennial grasses are a wonderful addition to any perennial bed. They provide a nice backdrop, or canvass if you will, for a perennial bed, give some structure to a landscape design and provide some winter interest in the garden when little else is going on.

As you drive around McHenry County you can see grasses used in a variety of ways and with a variety of other plants. For example, by the Noodles on Rt 14 in Crystal Lake, there is a great display of switch grass planted with Russian Sage, day lilies and what I believe to be a type of vibernum shrub. I thought there was a planting of Knockout roses and feather reed grasses in Woodstock on Rt 47, but the other day I went looking for it and couldn't find it. Well, I am getting old and forgetful, but the combination of roses, grasses and russian sage is a good combination none the less.

Grasses come in many shapes, heights, and seed types. There are even some that will take some shade, but those tend to be shorter. Most grasses are clumping varieties, rather than runners, meaning the clumps will widen over time but you won't find them all over your garden.

Some of the shorter varieties that are good candidates for borders are the fescues and prairie dropseed. I found this example of prairie dropseed over by Countryclub Road in Ridgefield. Here it is planted in front of some rudbekias. This is a shorter, spherical shaped grass with airy seed heads that smell of buttered popcorn when touched.
Other varieties you might consider include the Japanese blood grass and the Japanese forest grass or
hakonechloa. This grass is almost chartruese in color and takes part sun to part shade. Its floppy nature gives it almost a water-like quality and would look good in a dry stream to give the illusion of flowing water. I do have to give credit where credit is due: I saw this at Craig Bergman's garden center many years ago and now work with Kim Hartmann who used to work there. What a small world!
Here are some examples of grasses at different times of the year. These are varieties of miscanthus, the one on the left is in my garden during winter. (I did fix the fence this past spring.) The one on the lower right was taken during the fall. The blades have turned golden with a tinge of purple. There are grasses that turn a more purple color during the fall. The Japanese blood grass, a shorter grass, has streaks of purple all summer.
And speaking of purple grasses, here at C'side, we often get questions about a purple grass that did not come back the following year. After a few questions we determine that the grass the customer bought was the Purple Fountain grass. This is a great grass to use in containers or even in the landscape, but it is not hardy in our area. Many plants that are sold in garden centers are grown by national companies and the tags reflect that. The tag for purple fountain grass does say perennial, but if you read closely it is only perennial in zones 8-11.

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