by Lisa Watters Lain, Arizona’s garden gal, Watters Garden Center
Often banished to the outskirts with only each other for company, mountain grasses belong in the garden. You will find the largest selection at Watters Garden Center during autumn, the ideal planting conditions for these graceful beauties.
Ornamental grasses are a landscape architect’s dream. Texture, motion, scent, plumes, light and even sound is garnered by strategic placement. A border composed solely of flowering perennials can be colorfully bland and become woefully empty at winter’s arrival. Grasses are best when playing off other plants in the landscape. Their graceful thread weaves together all other plants in the garden, making them appear more like family members.
Twenty years ago, the pickings where slim for gardeners looking to grow grasses. Maiden grass, a clump of blue fescue or a pampas grass was considered a good selection. Now there are 300 varieties of maiden grass, four different pampas grass and dozens of small fescue companions, and that is where the selection begins.
Western designers have found beautiful new ways to integrate grasses into the garden. Grasses are low maintenance but high-interest foundation plantings where flowers are clearly secondary to foliage. Most of the larger grasses I would consider super hardy with minimal garden care needed to flourish. Treat taller grasses like a sturdy butterfly bush, lilac or even small tree, and it is happy. Put them on the same irrigation cycle.
Mistakes happen in the garden, especially with grasses. These are not solitary souls in the back of the landscape. Quantity is needed as much as quality for proper design. Plant odd numbers to splash through the garden. At the very least, buy one of three differing varieties and step each down in height, color and plume. This allows the eye to catch the motion in the landscape.
Plant in autumn spacing plants 1 to 3 feet apart. Dig a hole three times the diameter of the pot the plant is in and the same depth. Blend a 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch into the excavated soil. Carefully remove the plant from its container and place it in the hole so the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Carefully fill in around the root ball and firm the soil. Water thoroughly with a mixture of Root & Grow root stimulator. For more details, I have a free illustrated planting guide at the garden center: Please ask for one.
Unless you are a neat freak, don’t cut ornamental grasses back in the fall. Their sculptural forms and soft colors in the garden make winter bearable. Much better to wait until early spring, then cut back most clumps to just a few inches above the ground. In March, feed with All Purpose Plant Food 7-4-4, and fresh leafy blades will emerge, followed by the classic flower and seed heads. It can be just that easy to grow graceful grasses.
I have some definite favorites, but far too many to list in one article, but some recommendations are in order. Pink to white pampas grass abound, but they are huge at 10 feet. Ivory Feathers pampas grass is a new, smaller version that requires less maintenance. Growing as tall as the average person, the purist of white plumes adorn this majestic beauty fall through winter.
Regal Mist: In October this 3-foot Texas native sends up 1-foot cotton candy pink flower heads. The flower color lasts two months and is followed by an autumn harvest gold that stands tall through winter.
Muhlenbergia: This can be grouped together in islands, planted around fountains or pools or planted near roads or walkways. Rarely finicky about the soil, and once established require little watering or fertilizing. Perfect for landlords because it creates an easy-to-care-for rental.
Blue switch, Cabaret silver, Silver Variegated, Karl Foerster, Northern blue oats, Morning light and Blue dune all make exceptional garden plantings, but I’m out of words.
Autumn is the season to bring beauty, motion and soft romance to your beds and borders. This is also the ideal planting window for successful plantings.
Until next issue, I’ll be helping local gardeners with grasses here at Watters Garden Center.