As I write, seven deer are in my garden in broad daylight, looking for just a few more bites of edible plant material. As the fall feeding frenzy continues day and night, all the ornamental grasses are untouched.
Without the grasses, my garden would look very spent (and devoured!) at this time of the year. Instead, throughout the garden a large assortment of grasses adds texture, form, subtle color and graceful beauty. Some of the grasses are so dramatic that the fading perennials nearby are hardly noticeable.
Long before I gardened seriously, Willa Cather’s novels enthralled me. I felt at one with the prairie, surrounded by grasses dancing with every breeze. In the grassy field that was part of my parents’ property, I bent over grasses in spring to make a path to the secret area that was just big enough for me to lie in. There the grasses became an enclosure, and I could lie for long periods of time (or so it seemed) watching the ladybugs on the grass blades and the clouds roll by overhead.
No wonder as ornamental grasses began to be introduced to the horticultural trade, each new offering enticed me. No longer limited to the prairie grasses in the books I read, or my dreamy spring childhood wanderings in rural Sonoma County, I now could have grasses of every size and shape imaginable in my own garden.
The California natives top my very long list of favorites. Fescues (Festuca) are tough, attractive, and very drought tolerant. The smallest in my garden is the green Festuca capillata, a small tuft under 4 inches in height with a 6 inch spread. Festuca amethystina ‘Superba’ is a blue-green cultivar with long delicate inflorescences to 2 feet in bloom. The silvery-blue fescues (Festuca glauca) are the most commonly seen in the nursery trade. All are very good with low irrigation as edging plants or accents.
A larger native, deer grass or basket grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is beautiful in large stands or as a single specimen. Each mature plant needs at least 5 feet to show off its striking form. Purple muhley (Muhlenbergia capillata) does not have outstanding foliage, but in bloom it is breathtaking with ethereal purple inflorescences. A single mature plant has a 4-foot spread. Both of these grasses do not need irrigation once they are established.
Maiden grass (Miscanthus) needs more water, though in my garden they are doing quite well with water only once a month in the heat of the summer. ‘Adagio’ has attractive foliage coloration in the fall with rust and purple. ‘Gracillimus’ is the largest maiden grass, with a 6-foot spread and height in good soil.
So far I have mentioned grasses for sun exposure. In shade, the sedges (Carex) include many cultivars. Blue sedge (Carex glauca) likes a little shade or filtered sunlight. Variegated sedges will do well in even more shade. All need more water in the heat of the summer to prevent foliage burn. Since the sedges maintain the foliage color into winter, they are excellent evergreen accents in the landscape.
Two of my favorite shade-loving grasses are the Korean reed grass and the feather reed grass. Both are species within the genus Calamagostis. Their irrigation requirements are moderate (once a week in the heat of the summer), and they will tolerate a few hours of sunlight in the morning or very late afternoon. Their leaves have a beautiful arching habit, and the influorescences are light and airy, adding a nice texture to the fall landscape.
Unfortunately, the commonly sold purple Pennisetum is not hardy in the foothills. Cold winter temperatures usually end its summer long display of purple foliage, and it seldom recovers to grow the following season. Enjoy it as an annual, and rely on the hardy grasses for good performance year after year.
Carolyn Singer is the author of “Deer in My Garden, Vol. 1: Perennials & Subshrubs,” a guide to the selection, care, and landscape use of deer-resistant perennials. She has been gardening in the foothills for 29 years.
Plan for bareroot planting!
Attend a class Nov. 11 ($10) at Peaceful Valley farm Supply; 272-GROW. Learn about planting: asparagus, berries, fruit trees, ornamental trees.
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