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    Why these drought-tolerant grasses can light up your winter garden
    • November 11, 2023

    For everything you ever wanted to know about ornamental grasses, I recommend perusing “Grasses for Gardens and Landscapes” by Neil Lucas (Timber Press). 

    At the outset, Lucas extols the ‘seasonality’ of grasses, as they keep our interest throughout the year, changing as the months go by. Speaking of deciduous grasses – to be cut within a few inches of the ground before regrowth in the spring – he draws attention to “their annual miracle of fast green growth, magnificent flower, and autumnal tints, followed by their winter brown coats standing tall and resolute until the following spring.” 

    Certain grasses have an allure all winter long due to their persistent luminescent flowers which light up the garden under sunless skies. Here, the Miscanthus genus takes center stage, with species such as silver banner grass (Miscanthus saccharifolius), Miscanthus sinensis var. Silver Charm, and Miscanthus sinensis var. Fire Dragon resplendent with glowing silvery white flowers in winter. Fire Dragon has the added bonus of foliage that turns maroon and burgundy in the fall and stays that way through the winter months. 

    In truth, you could create a garden of nothing but Miscanthus species and cultivars due to the wide spectrum of eye-catching effects produced among them. Indeed, more than 50 different Miscanthus selections are featured in this volume. They include Miscanthus x giganteus, whose brilliant green fountainesque foliage can reach ten feet in height, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Bandwidth’ with discrete yellow bands running the length of four-foot foliage, and Miscanthus sinensis Red Cloud, Red Spear, and Red Zenith, all of which bear reddish inflorescences. 

    Keep in mind that the foliage of ornamental grasses is not only green. You will find them with leaves that are blue, red, pink, purple, as in purple fountain grass (Pennisetum x advena var. Rubrum), gold, or chartreuse, too. I could easily imagine a whole yard of perennial grasses in this melange of colors. Many of them are highly drought-tolerant and would only need an occasional hosing down once established in the garden. Incidentally, if you fancy pink, you will want to plant pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and pink crystals (Melinis nerviglumis) due to the enormous clouds of pink flowers that they provide.

    I was curious to see what the author had to say about feather grass (Nassella tenuissima). I was curious because it is easy to be seduced by this grass – I know I was – at first sight, especially in the fall when its needle-thin foliar tresses turn tawny at their tips until they are completely golden and softly inviting too. The problem is its invasiveness so that, before you know it, feather grass will be growing in your neighbors’ gardens as well, whether they like it or not. The good news is that feather grass is not deep-rooted and you can be rid of it without too much effort. Although its capacity to set seed is mentioned, implying that its self-sowing could be an issue, no explicit warning about its invasiveness is given in this book.

    Another grass that I wanted to find was feathertop (Pennisetum villosum). Ever since I saw it growing as a ground cover on a parkway strip, I was wondering about its utility as a lawn substitute. I learned here that it normally grows to a height of around three feet but, based on what I saw, foot traffic merely flattens, as opposed to killing it. Its white flowers, resembling caterpillars, are its salient feature. In warm climates such as ours, it is a perennial and I would not hesitate to plant it where people occasionally walk or exit their cars, as in a parkway between sidewalk and street.

    Where grasses are concerned, as in garden design generally, mass planting is recommended. With so many selections to choose from, you may be tempted to plant a smorgasbord of grasses. Although this may be justified if, as alluded to above, you want to create a rainbow of foliar colors or perhaps an expanse of different species that have silvery flowers in common, where a dramatic effect is desired, staying with one or two or, at most, three species, is generally recommended.

    California native of the week: Beargrass (Nolina parryi) is a legacy plant that is meant for gardens that will be handed down from the present generation to the next, at least. I say this because it may take more than 30 years for a seed-grown plant to flower although it can be assumed that potted specimens will produce a flower in a shorter period of time. Rosettes that will remind you of yuccas may expand in a clump up to 15 feet across, yet leaves are soft, unlike sharply pointed yucca leaves. Eventually, beargrass will grow up to 12 feet tall and its caudex or basal stem, from which new growth arises and which stores water, may reach a diameter of two feet. Flower spikes are worth waiting for as they are eight feet tall and bloom from mid-spring into summer. Nolina parryi is available by mail order from

    Do you have any ornamental grasses to recommend? If so, tell me about them in an email to [email protected]. Your horizontally-oriented photos of unusual plants (which may be published) are always welcome as well as recommended gardening practices in addition to questions and comments about any plant species. 

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