On sunny July mornings, I look forward to walking through the garden and seeing what new daylilies are in bloom each day. At this time of year, it is the grasses that catch my eye. Yup, grass. Although, like many gardeners, I do constant battle to keep the lawn from creeping into the garden, I have been experimenting with several varieties of ornamental grass. The autumn is their time to shine.
On bright mornings, the sun sparkles on dew drops beading their fine, feathery seedheads. Even on dull days, tiny droplets outline the stems with a delicacy more intricate than lace. The weather has been unseasonably cool lately, but on warm days, the grasstops have been filled with amazing spiderwebs.
The first of my grass species joined the garden a year ago, when the display of fall plants at the local grocery store included a couple of types of switchgrass, sometimes called panic grass, along with the usual pots of mums. I was able to aquire Panicum virgatum “Prairie Sky”, which features steel blue foliage, and P. v. “Shenandoah”, whose leaves are tinted with wine red.
Above, you can see the red-tipped leaves of Shenandoah in the foreground, with the blue leaves and seedheads of Prairie Sky behind.
A week or two later, I found P.v. “Thundercloud” while on another grocery shopping trip. Isn’t it magnificent? While Shenandoah and Prairie Sky are about 3 and 4 feet tall respectively, Thundercloud is over 5 feet. Its leaves are greener than those of the other two panicums.
This little guy is Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). The plant should form a short, dense mound. So far, my dropseed has been a bit scraggly. I think it may want more sunlight than it receives in its current location. I’ll try moving it next spring.
I added Little Bluestem “Prairie Blues” (Schizachyrium scoparium) this summer. It will take another year for the clump to fill out but its settling in nicely. Above, you can see Prairie Blues in front of Shenandoah and to the left of Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’. The plant in the foreground is Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis “Longwood Blue”).
This little sprout is Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). It’s still just settling in to the garden. When mature, big bluestem can grow as tall as 8 feet. Big bluestem is the mainstay of natural tallgrass prairies. Once, big bluestem carpeted millions of acres across the North American plains and even regions of Ontario. Now, much of it has long since been plowed under. One plant scarcely give you any idea of what the sea of grass, waving in the wind, must once have looked like, but it will make a great accent.
The miscanthus, above, was already in the Willow House garden when I arrived. It has very showy, feathery plumes in the fall and blooms a bit later than my other grasses. Unlike my newbies, it is a non-native. The stem that you see to the left of the grass is willow-leaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius), a native perennial. It’s new this year and should put on a good show next year.
With the exception of the miscanthus, these grasses are all important constituents of prairie grasslands and savanna. They are a vital larval food source for many skippers and other butterflies and provide seeds for birds. They grow in clumps that gradually increase in size, so while they may require some control measures, they’re not wildly invasive. I’m looking forward to adding a few more species of native grasses next year.