Cedar Valley Arboretum & Botanic Gardens

A Closer Look

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We are seeing the transition from users to stewards throughout our nation, with the popularity of reusable grocery bags and water bottles, chemical-free produce and discussions of carbon footprints.  The idea of land stewardship is also (thankfully!) following us into the garden.  We’re seeing more sustainable practices like choosing site-appropriate plant material, water conservation and going the route of organic instead of harsh chemicals.  These are excellent practices and should be done by all gardeners, whether it is be a few pots on a balcony, foundation plantings, a vegetable garden or large perennial beds.

 

But I think as gardeners, we can also take this refound people-plant connection to another level.  And while a base of horticulture knowledge can be helpful, it’s not as necessary.  It is more about critical thinking, a sense of curiosity and sometimes, a bit of patience. 

 

To explain this thought shift, I thought we would use ornamental grasses as our example.  Ornamental grasses have definitely taken the spotlight over the past few years and the term “ornamental grasses” is so popular now that it doesn’t even need explanation, when only a few decades ago it would have.

 

So we are standing in our garden or home landscape and decide we would like to incorporate some ornamental grasses.  Initial reaction might be to stop by our local nursery to pick up a few varieties that catch our eye, take them home to plop in the ground and you’re done.  That could work, but I think we can do better than that.  And if we take a few quick and easy steps at the beginning, we’ll see the reward as our garden develops and takes shape.

 

There are four steps we should take before purchasing our plant material.

Do your research.

Consider your design.

Understand your limitations.

Consider plant communities and seasonal appeal.

 

Do your research.  What do we know about ornamental grasses, on the surface?  How have the nurseries and garden publications marketed ornamental grasses to the public?  They are low maintenance, drought tolerant and native to our area.

 

But before purchasing, it would be helpful to know a little bit more.  This is where that critical thinking comes in.  Luckily with today’s technology we have information at our fingertips.  So we can go online or pick up a gardening book and find a bit of background information about ornamental grasses.  Inside the Poaceae family, there are thousands and thousands of species and among the species categorized as “ornamental grasses,” there even still a huge variety.  But instead of feeling overwhelmed, this should be freeing!  There is no way to know it all, which takes the anxiety out of it. 

 

 So we start small and try to identify some basic differences between the popular varieties of ornamental grasses.

Miscanthus (Maiden Grass).  Very popular genus with common clump- forming habit and dense seed head, but also great variety of blade shape, size and color and overall plant size.

Molinia (Moore Grass).  Sturdy stems hold seed heads above arching tufts of green foliage.

Schizachyrium (Little Bluestem).  Dense, fine-textured foliage with seed tufts along each stem.

Sporobolus (Praire Dropseed).  Open, branching seed heads on slender stems that rise above clumps of arching foliage.

Calamagrostis (Karl Foerester Grass).  Upright golden spikes with dense, green foliage.

 

Consider design.  After we can recognize the difference in our plant material, choosing for our design becomes much easier.  Variables we want to consider are size, growth habit/form, color and texture.  So instead of knowing the specific plant, you can make a checklist of requirements.

For example, we want a grass with a fine texture that provides airy movement in the garden.  Molinia provides height and transparency while Sporobolus provides transparency similar to Molinia, but does so with less height.  Or perhaps you want to make a dense screen with dramatic seed heads.  Miscanthus would be an excellent choice and comes in a variety of heights.  You would also have the opportunity to play around with color as well as texture.

 

Understand your limitations.  This somewhat goes hand in hand with your design in respect to size and form.  But you also need to consider light, moisture and soil quality.  Most ornamental grasses cannot grow in shade – just a fact, and no getting around it.  Cutting down trees to get sun is most likely not worth it, but some variables can be amended.  For example, you could incorporate organic material to a clay soil to improve drainage.  You also want to consider the long-term growth of your chosen plant – does the grass you chose stay in a clump or spread?   In a naturalizing bed, spreading might be more acceptable while in many small spaces it would not.

 

Consider plant communities and seasonal appeal.  How will your chosen plant material interact with its neighboring plants?  Ornamental grass can be an excellent focal point or also take up negative space – provide backbone to the garden.  The appeal of ornamental grass is also its four-season interest.  When many plants are turning in for the year, ornamental grasses are at their height, and many are strong enough to stand all winter.

 

Purchase your plant material.  And finally, you’re ready to purchase your plant material!

 

The great thing about gardening is that hard work almost always reaps reward and always worth the extra effort of thoughtful design and planting.  There is a sense of bonding over shared workload and pride, and great opportunity for creativity and personal taste.  Gardens can be a source of meals, site for friendly gatherings, and more than anything a happy place for you and yours.  I hope you will take time to consider your plant connection the next time you work in your garden or visit other landscapes.

 

See you in the gardens.

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Written by cedarvalleyarboretum

November 5, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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