It's amazing how just a few years ago ornamental grasses were a bit of a novelty on the West Coast. A few plants could be spotted here and there, usually in professionally designed landscapes or at the homes of gardeners who had a real passion for grasses. Now, they have become mainstream as folks realize their potential to lift summer and fall gardens to the next level. Appreciation of ornamental grasses is not something you cultivate overnight. It takes a while to understand the nature of each variety of grass and to see what it looks like during every season of the year. Yes, some have their down times, but this little, hiccup is easily overshadowed by their many fine qualities. Most grasses, once established in a site they enjoy, are virtually maintenance free, all they need is a little watering in summer, a little protection in winter for the tender varieties and an annual pruning. They all have fresh new growth in late spring, attractive flowers in mid?summer and a fabulous look in winter. Late summer breezes cause their leaves and stems to sway, adding not only life and movement to your garden but also the sound of rustling foliage, it's like listening to great music! Many grasses, such as miscanthus which really plumes up in late summer, literally shine when backlit by the warm golden sunlight so unique to fall. For many winters now, we've enjoyed evergreen grasses, such as carex and acorns caressing the edges of hanging baskets and containers. Today, there are fabulous grass selections that, by themselves, make containers spectacular. Grasses have so much to offer they're plants for all seasons. We just have to learn how to use them to add new. life in so many areas of our gardens. My five favourite grass families are the miscanthus, pennisetums, carex, acorns and fescues. Miscanthus are medium to tall show flowers not only add a fresh spark hot, dry gardens, but they also continue through the winter. Tall varieties, like Miscanthus Giganteus, or as sometimes called Robustus zone 6), grow about three metres tall with I green leaves touched with a bit of silver They make a great screen by mid Jun, and their bronze flower tufts are truly magnificent. One of the most sought after miscanthus however, is Porcupine Grass (M. strict Zone 5). This two metre tall grass has bands along its leaves and a tall upright habit, making it especially elegant. Another elegant variety is M. Mysterious Maiden which also has gold bands and a strong upright vase?shaped habit. The white and green variegated Miscanthus sinensis Variegatus (Zone 6), although a little more tender, is still a great, garden accent.
If it's the wow factor you are looking for then M. Cosmopolitan and M. Cabaret with their wide leaves and brilliant white and green variegation, will create the dramatic look you are hoping to achieve. They only bloom in long, warm tall weather, but in dark green perennial borders or in lawn areas with a great many trees around, they are the spark that can ignite a garden. Today, there are many shorter varieties that can be tucked in almost anywhere. Miscanthus ? Little Zebra ? has a great compact form. The stunner, however, is M. Gold Bar with its intense rich gold bands that make this plant a must focal point for any container or garden. Explore these many new varieties of miscanthus, including the compact forms, like M. Yaku Jim's, and the beautifully plumed M. Andante, Huron Sunrise and Flamingo. The most beautiful grass of all, bar none, is purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum Rubrum ? Zone 8). Alas, to survive our winters it must be lifted and brought inside to grow on, but it is the focal point of all focal points. Surrounded by anything pink, it is magnificence plus. Among the hardy varieties, I like Pennisetum Hameln and Piglet because they bloom so early, are short and give you plumes now when you need them to enhance both your annual and perennial lords. Their pink?beige flowers on short, stems arc prolific, and they look especially good in small beds or containers. Blending various pennisetums together can create some wonderful effects. It's like a thousand bunny?tail plumes dancing in the summer and fall breezes, adding a whole; new dimension to your garden. Surround these plants with golden rudbeckias, orange heleniums, the pinks and purples of echinaceas or the new sedums now available in many colours. Each fall and winter, we've been using more and more evergreen carex, acorns and fescues, along with evergreen perennials, to create some pretty amazing effects. My all time favourite, Carex Evergold, (Zone 6) has soft yellow and green variegated foliage with a soft drooping habit.
Beacons of light
I also love the soft silver green, hair like stems of Carex comans Frosty Curls (Zone 6). It is magnificent flowing over baskets and containers. With a little protection, they will tolerate most winters in a container. In the ground, they are like beacons of light all winter long, especially on those really dark, dreary days. The most amazing acorus is one caller Ogon. It's short 20cm variegated mostly gold variety with some green edging that truly deserves to be a focal point. It's a natural for containers hanging baskets and small planting areas. What made me appreciate this jewel is its hardiness. Last year's severe cold with wind chill didn't even faze this plant.
Fescue for dry areas
Fescue grasses have been around for ages and are well known and used in dry difficult areas. In our region, they need well drained soils and the hotter the exposure, the better. There are many new varieties available but the blues are, by far, the most popular Festuca Peppindale Blue and F. Elijah Blue are both excellent. Folks, if you're new to grasses, proceed slowly. Try a few this summer and see how the can heighten the effect of your late summer, fall and winter gardens. I like to plant them fairly close together for an instant effect arid to choke out weeds. The basic rule, however, is to plant them as far apart as their height. The grasses I have mentioned are not invasive, and they will all add a whole new vision to your garden.