by Carina Langstraat, Landscape Designer
Having worked on many a small city lot, I’ve become seasoned in the discipline of selecting plants that deliver maximum performance and interest throughout the year. That takes a fair amount of self-control, because I love plants, at least most plants, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the exciting choices we have as Northwesterners.
Sadly, when push comes to shove, though, certain marvelous plants are difficult to work into a small garden because, for the square footage they take up, they just don’t perform enough months out of the year. Bleeding heart is a good example of that: Who doesn’t love the romance of sensuous heart shaped flowers hanging like little pendants from arching stems? But, let’s face it, bleeding heart can be finicky, and even if it’s happy it dies back by midsummer, leaving an awkward gap. True, that gap can be mitigated by planting hostas or ferns around it, but, depending on the configuration of the space, there isn’t always room for that.
If performance is what you need, I suggest you investigate the world of ornamental grasses. What I love the most about ornamental grasses is how much they earn their keep in the garden. Most of them are out of the ground and ready to greet spring by April. As the spring goes on they become lush. The morning dew sparkles on their blades. The summer brings height and mass. If you planted them in drifts, the blades dance in the wind and the view from your window can rival the beauty of looking at any body of water. When fall comes they set their seed pods and give you yet another show. If deer are a concern where you live, you’ll be happy to hear that, as a rule, ornamental grasses aren’t on the menu. Below are a few of my favorites. I’ve divided them into shorter and taller groups for convenience:
Taller Ornamental Grasses
Miscanthus sinensis “Morning Light” (Morning Light Maiden Grass): This plant is a fantastic combination of tough and lovely. While I enjoy the regular Miscanthus sinensis as well, Morning Light has a lovely silverness to the blades that isn’t at all gaudy, but catches the sun and really sets up other plants well.
Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster” (Feather Reed Grass): This is a good plant to know about if you want all the things that tall grasses deliver but you don’t have a great deal of room in terms of width. It grows anywhere between 3 and 5 feet tall, but it is only about 18 inches wide—that’s hard to do! The lovely seed pods start out being chartreuse in June, and by October they are a tawny tan color that reminds me of shafts of wheat standing tall.
Cortaderia selloana “Pumila” (Dwarf Pampas Grass): A dwarf form of the old-fashioned pampas grass, I prefer this cultivar because its blades are finer and more delicate than regular Cortaderia selloana and because it is most certainly a more manageable size. For me, this plant is a good problem solver in tough situations: It will take full sun, little water, and require almost no attention. One word of caution: It definitely wants dryer conditions and will rot in a bog.
Low-Growing Ornamental Grasses
Hakonechloa macra “Aureola” (Japanese Forest Grass): This is one of my all- time favorite low-growing grasses. It’s an excellent choice for a woodland garden and quite accommodating in terms of exposure. It likes part sun to part shade the best, but has pleasantly surprised me on many occasions when I have pushed the margin in each direction. It has slender, golden blades striped with green and white. In the fall, the white part of the stripe turns a subtle, dusky rose. This plant looks great with ferns or hostas but can hold its own in a large drift. It spreads through underground runners, which allow it to form an elegant uniformity.
Liriope muscari (Big Blue Lilly Turf): This plant grows in clumps, but when the clumps are planted in drifts they create a marvelous sea of shiny dark green. It is evergreen, so to spice up the area, I like to intermingle masses of tulips and/or daffodils to make things less static. Liriope does best when it’s out of the wind and in a part-sun to part-shade environment.
Ophiopogon japonicas “Nana” (Dwarf Green Mondo Grass): This is a good plant to know about if you need something really low. When you see it in mass, it’s hard not to want to reach out and run your hand across the blades.
Also evergreen, Ophionpogon planiscapus “Nigresscens” is worth knowing about, too, if you need inky black depth to play off something gold or chartreuse. This is another plant that generally likes part sun to part shade but has always come through for me with flying colors whenever I push its light exposure edges a bit.
In terms of cutting back grasses that aren’t evergreen, exercise restraint and wait until January or even February. If you cut the larger clumps back now, the winter rain slowly rots the center. Leaving the blades on the grass will help keep it warm during low temperatures and shed excess water, preventing rot.
For more information about Carina Langstraat’s landscape design firm, Langstraat-Wood Inc., visit www.langstraatwood.com.
Featured photo is Hakonechloa. Photos by Carina Langstraat.