Welcome new readers from Tuesday’s class at Audubon Adult Evening School; it was great to meet all of you and thank you for coming out to learn a bit about Autumn Gardens. We had some laughs and heard about each others’ gardens–always the best part for me. Another part of our lesson: a list of great plants for the Autumn garden, and on this list, ornamental grasses. Grasses are great for several reasons and after reading this, I hope you are inspired to add some to your garden. Katie the Nervous Dog has a fondness for grasses, too, so it’s appropriate I am writing this today because she was up at 1:30am to go out to eat some. Just like people, nervousness upsets her stomach and since she is wired this way to start with, her stomach is upset more often than most dogs (according to her vet). Her favorite grass for post-midnight snacking is Karl Foerster. I will probably not have to cut this grass back come spring as there is little of it left. Katie provides a lot of joy to my life and she had a rough life prior to our adopting her–a long burn scar runs down her back–so I am happy to do what I can to ease her unrest, even if that means mine. The things we do for love.
I classify plants, generally speaking, into degrees of “landscape value” and grasses are high on the list. “Landscape value” means plants that offer a lot over the course of the garden year and are worth having around. It also means that they fall into the “low-maintenance” category, and resistance to pests and disease. Grasses are also deer resistant, and drought tolerant. Included in this list are “grass-like” plants such as sedges. Here are is a list of my favorites:
1. Switchgrass. Panicum virgatum. Two favorite varieties are “Shenandoah” and “Heavy Metal.” The main thing I like about Switchgrass is that it keeps a very upright habit, making it a good neighbor plant because it doesn’t fall and flop over adjacent plants. It is a native grass for us and looks great with nearly all plants in the garden. Grows about four feet tall and two feet wide, so it looks best in the middle of the planting bed or as an end-point;
2. Muhly Grass. Muhlenbergia capillaris. The seed heads of this grass have a rosy glow and are show-stoppers–just amazing. They look the best when planted in a sweep or grouping of three or more. It doesn’t get big, either–about three feet high by two feet wide. I have lost this plant a time or two when we’ve had those really bad winters, so I would say plant this where you have protection and very well-draining soil;
3. Feather Reed Grass. Calamagrostis x “Karl Foerster.” Katiie’s grass. Seed heads come around in the summer, so it looks great for a really long time. It is of the most slender grasses–only about eighteen inches wide and four feet tall. It is the seed heads that make it reach this height; the base of the plant folds over at about a foot high;
4. Chasmantheum latifolium. Another native grass. And this one will be fine in some shade! Dry shade, at that. Birds love the seeds. It does re-seed a bit but the foliage is easy to recognize and it’s not a nuisance, easy to edit out. Also great in Autumn arrangements;
5. Sedges. Carex. There are several I love–Bronze Carex keeps a bronze color all year and looks especially great in winter; Appalachia and Pennsylvania, both have a fine, soft green foliage and are ok in drier conditions. Like all carex they have a lovely rounded arching habit and are only about a foot tall. They looks great with ferns and should be considered a ground cover rather than a specimen, so plant in masses. They prefer shade and shelter. Lastly, a sedge called “Prairie Fire” which I did see for sale at some home centers this summer. This sedge looks awesome in a planted container as the color is bronze and orange in the fall and winter. About eighteen inches tall and wide. Good drainage very important for this plant.
As for plant care: I leave my grasses up over the winter to provide a soft interest, food for the birds and shelter for them as well. But you can cut them back–to about three to six inches high– in Autumn if you prefer. Sedges should only have their ends trimmed in the spring, around May, not a full cut-back. The best way, really to rejuvenate grasses is to set them on fire. Public gardens like Storm King Art Center in New York have control burns with their grass meadows–I do not recommend you try this at home. See my Garden Crimes Investigator for this week’s post for more on this safety topic…