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Grasses
by Des Kennedy
January 7, 2001

A brisk walk through the garden these days reminds us that all-season appeal is one big reason why ornamental grasses have recently become so popular. “Up to 12 months of ornamental value!” trumpets one of our catalogues, then adds that “more and more each year, discerning gardeners are discovering that there are no finer plants for accent and architectural effect.” I’m inclined to agree.
We have a baker’s half-dozen different perennial grasses at our place, some deciduous and others evergreen, all of them immensely appealing.
A pair of oriental beauties are among the most attractive. The familiar maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘gracillimus’, produces gracefully arching silvery-green leaves and fan-shaped panicles of white flowers. The feathery seed heads last well into winter, their delicate beauty a favourite subject in Japanese paintings. 
Closely realted, the zebra grass, ‘Zebrinus’, forms a similar clump, its leaf blades reaching over a metre tall, with theatrical gold and green stripes running across the blades. Mature specimens carry flowering spikes of biege and pink panicles in autumn. We have it planted with heavenly bamboo and golden box, but it’s also stunning as a single specimen alongside water. Although an herbaceous perennial, in our mild winters the leaves remain an attractive sandy colour with faded traces of their odd zebra striping.
Another Japanese winner we added a year or two ago is Japanese blood grass. Smaller than the other two, growing to about 60 cm, it produces blood-red foliage that glows especially beautifully when backlit by the sun. In wintertime its thin leaves bleach to a pleasing blonde. Preferring full sun and well-drained soil, like zebra and maiden grass blood grass is hardy down to zone 5.
Three of our evergreen grasses are especially fine in winter. Showiest of the three is giant feather grass. A native of Spain, this sturdy perennial has tufts of narrow leaves up to 50 cm long. In summer it produces masses of elegant open panicles, purplish-green at first, then gradually turning a gorgeous yellow. The dangling seed heads look especially fine when fluttering in a breeze, and persist well into winter.
Less dramatic, but lovely and very versatile, tufted hair grass also produces dense clumps of fine, dark green leaves surmounted in summer by dainty flowering stalks almost a metre tall. An excellent filler, good in sun or deep shade, it expands enthusiastically, and the clumps don’t object to being roughly divided every year or two.
In fact, most of these grasses are sturdily self-reliant, requiring very little attention. Once established, they’re highly resistant to excessive heat and drought, although some appreciate a winter mulch.
A third evergreen at our place, ribbon grass, is a little more self-reliant than required. This is the infamous gardener’s garters, pleasingly variegated with broad, white-striped leaves. In favourable conditions it can be highly invasive -- as one of our manuals puts it, the plant’s width is “indefinite.” Recognizing a disaster in the making, we last year uprooted it from the garden and trundled it off to the arboretum where it is free to spread as indefinitely as it wants.
Another adventitious variegated type, bulbous oat grass dies to the ground in winter. Although it too spreads generously, its peculiar bulbous roots are easily removed where not wanted, and we’ve allowed it to remain in the garden for the joy of its green and cream foliage.
Once started, it’s hard to stop with ornamental grasses, and there are numerous worthy candidates we’d like to add -- the stately feather reed grass, purple moor grass and Chinese penisetum. Native grasses from the tallgrass prairie such as big bluestem, sand lovegrass and Indian grass are all entirely desireable.
In some windswept locations, ornamental grasses may not be quite right in the winter garden -- left unprotected they may twist in the wind to rather desolate effect. In which case deciduous forms are better cut to the ground with the onset of winter. Elsewhere, slender stems and leaves of grass dancing in the wind can be a joyful thing, providing welcome winter interest long after their summer beauty has faded away.

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