Documents: Latest From: Jodi DeLong:

Beyond Flowers: Grasses & Shrubs Light Up The Garden
by Jodi DeLong
by Jodi DeLong


Writing about plants and gardening is just one part of Jodi¹s professional writing business. She¹s been a garden columnist for the Atlantic Co-operator for over five years, and last year was invited to do a biweekly column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Canada¹s oldest independent daily newspaper. In addition, she writes regular garden features for Saltscapes magazine, Manitoba Co-operator, Grainews, Rural Delivery, and has also had various feature articles in Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, Complete Canadian Gardener, Aquascapes Lifestyles, and East Coast Gardener. Jodi sits on the National Board of Directors for PWAC, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, as Atlantic Regional Director, and is also a member of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. When she¹s not writing, she¹s gardening, reading about gardening, photographing gardens, thinking about gardening, or ignoring the housework.

December 18, 2005

A common lament from gardeners is that the big flush of perennials comes during early to high summer, followed by the great garden meltdown; that dreaded time when it seems very little is blooming and everything needs deadheading. Annual plants and long season performers such as coneflowers and daylilies help keep things interesting. Two types of plants that are receiving more attention of late, justifiably so, are shrubs and ornamental grasses, both of which offer up to four seasons of interest, with their wealth of forms, colour, height, and other assets.

Grasses have really begun to turn heads in recent years, partly because so many of them continue to be beautiful in winter. Atlantic Canadians have a lot of winter, especially the past several years, so anything that can look good during that time of year is worth considering as part of a planting scheme.

If you’ve ever walked through a garden featuring grasses, you know exactly what Smit means. There’s also a music to grasses as they whisper and sing in those breezes, and their graceful shapes look good in anything from a formal planting to a joyously mixed cottage garden.

When choosing a grass at your local nursery, make sure to ask what sort of growth habit the variety has. Also be sure to find out the plant’s height at maturity. A small grass such as blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Boulder Blue’) will be lost if planted in the middle or back of a perennial border, whereas a tall grower such as flame grass (Miscanthus purpurascens) will easily dwarf other plants with its five-foot height and three-foot spread.

What you put in for plants depends on what visual effect you want. As with other types of plants, not every grass works well for every garden. The types that grow and spread by underground rhizomes or runners are not appropriate for a perennial bed, but can be valuable and appealing if used alongside a hilly area where erosion is a concern. Most grasses sold by reputable nurseries are very well mannered, growing slowly and politely from their base to form clumps that do not try to take over your garden.

If you’re new to grasses and aren’t sure what you might like, buy what's available and recommended at a reliable nursery, but do ask about its rate of spread. One to avoid, commonly seen at plant sales, available from friends or at many mass market locations is Gardener’s Garters or ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea var. picta). This is the goutweed of grasses and will try to take over the universe if you let it, so either plant it within a large container or boundary or use it to cover a problem area. We’re encouraging it down by our large wildlife pond, where it’s not any sort of problem.

I’m developing more and more of an appreciation for shrubs because of the wealth of colours and forms they bring to the garden. And if you’re a busy person with limited time to spend puttering in your plantings, shrubs are often low maintenance They tend to give multiseason interest; they flower in the spring or summer, have lovely colours of leaves and stems, and many of them turn spectacular colours during autumn. With those that bear fruit, you have the added bonus of providing food for wildlife and birds, or for yourself.

There are so many shrubs to try, it’s hard to suggest just a few. Probably my favourite shrubs are the barberries, which are enjoying a return to popularity after years of neglect. The regular green-leafed species is pretty all by itself, with its cascading form and brilliant emerald foliage, but there are also varieties with purple and gold foliage. Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ is a top choice, as the new foliage is rosy-pink splashed with purple, deepening into purple as it matures. B. thunbergii ‘Aurea’ is a smaller and compact variety with golden yellow leaves. Many of the barberries have dainty flowers and later brilliant red fruit, and all give fantastic fall colour. My dream is to develop a hedge of barberries across the back of our property, interspersed with long flowering rugosa roses. I’ll let you know how that develops over the years....

Many common garden shrubs are now being bred with variegated foliage to complement their flowers, such as weigelas and dogwoods. Others are being developed with different shades in their leaves, such as the golden mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’) and the striking dappled Japanese willow, Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’, which has mottled foliage of green and white with pink tips showing on young growth.

Another striking and easy to grow shrub is the ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius. We introduced two ninebarks to our gardens this year, and although the plants are young, we’re smitten with them. ‘Diabolo’ boasts rich, deep purple foliage, and while it blooms profusely with creamy to pinkish blossoms, followed by red fruit, I wouldn’t care if it ever opened a blossom, the leaves are so lovely. I feel the same way about ‘Dart’s Gold’, which as its name suggests, boasts golden green foliage that lights up any area of the garden that it is planted in.

Although some Atlantic gardeners have success growing Japanese maples, I have not even tried them. Their colours and leaf forms are spectacular, but their questionable hardiness in my Bay of Fundy garden, coupled with their expensive price tag, has meant I pass them by at the nurseries, in favour of other, more hardy, varieties.

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row