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For The Love Of Gardening: An Affinity for Grasses



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I have always had an affinity for grasses. Growing up in the Connecticut countryside, my parent’s house was surrounded by farms and fields of timothy hay. To me, haying was an exciting event because the farmer next door would lift me up onto the broad back of one of his work horses. It was thrilling to be up so high. Slow and steady, back and forth, the horses plodded drawing a dump rake behind them.

The rake had two wheels and was operated from a seat between them where the farmer controlled the lifting mechanism. When enough hay had been combed into a windrow, he would use the lever to raise the rake, leaving a neat roll of new-mown hay. Later, the hay would be piled onto a wagon and trundled off to the barn. Timothy hay (Phleum pratense) was a favorite food for cows and horses in those days. The flowering stalks, which are 20 to 40 inches tall, look like very small, green cat’s tails.

Ornamental grasses are much bigger, bolder plants. At the back of my long perennial border, one of the stalwarts of the late season garden is Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis var gracillimus), which has fine blades a quarter of an inch wide and about six feet tall. As it has been in place for years, the clump has expanded to at least 30 inches in diameter. The effect of the slender blades is fountainlike, and the flower heads, which come later, are pretty dried and used in arrangements.

Closely related zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis var. zebrinus) is taller, topping out at six to nine feet and even showier with broad, horizontally striped bands of cream. Mine is about seven feet in height and has become a big, handsome clump. Perhaps the prettiest of all is the cultivar ‘Morning Light,’ which is rather smaller than the others and quite refined — five to six feet tall, with silvery foliage.

These grasses all like sun, the more the better, but Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) actually prefers shade. While it can tolerate more sun than many woodland plants, it is happiest at the forest edge. The plants are low growing, a little more than a foot tall, with arching foliage of a beautiful yellow with longitudinal stripes of dark green. It creates a welcome bright spot in a shady border, and this summer I used it in containers with deep red coleus and chartreuse sweet potato vine.

At the back of the perennial border, the tall grasses partner well with Joe Pye weed, a native plant that decorates roadsides and springs up in overgrown fields. It has recently acquired a long and difficult botanical name, Eupatoriadelphus maculatus, but you can certainly be forgiven for calling it by its common name.

I have a white form of Joe Pye weed that towers over even the tallest grasses. ‘Bartered Bride’ shoots up to ten feet and looks down on its shorter cousin, ‘Gateway,’ which has six-foot stems each culminating in a large, branching flower cluster of a rosy purple color. Elsewhere in the garden, I have planted ‘Little Joe’ and ‘Baby Joe,’ smaller relations of ‘Gateway,’ both are less than five feet tall and have proportionally smaller flower clusters. The Joe Pye Weeds and ornamental grasses are a marriage made in heaven.

Wherever there is room at the back of the long border, meadow rue (Thalictrum rochbruneanum ‘Lavender Mist’) fills in among the grasses with its tall purple stems, dainty foliage, and clouds of tiny flowers. It self-sows and is welcome wherever it appears.

But the star of the late season garden in really Sedum ‘Autumn Joy,’ which will be in full bloom in about early October. This foolproof, long-lived perennial is in a class by itself. From the time the rosettes of succulent blue-green foliage appear in the spring until the end of the growing season, it makes a welcome contribution to the garden.

At this stage, the flower heads are fully formed and will soon begin to turn from pink to rose, the color gradually deepening to rust, and finally, to brown. Even in the winter the plants maintain their upright stature, and the flower heads are lovely capped with snow. The grasses are beautiful in the winter, too. While they can be rather messy when dry and windblown, they are still wonderful plants and give me pleasure in all four seasons.

If you want to learn more about these graceful, easy to grow plants, expert Rick Darke has literally written the book on the subject, The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes. He covers the selection, planting, and propagation of true grasses and related plants, like rushes and cattails.

Love your gardening, till next time!

Sydney Eddison has written seven books on gardening. In addition, she collaborated with the Color Wheel Company on The Gardener’s Color Wheel: A Guide to Using Color in the Garden.

For her work as a writer, gardener, and lecturer, she received The Connecticut Horticultural Society’s Gustav A.L. Melquist Award in 2002; The New England Wild Flower Society Kathryn S. Taylor Award in 2005; in 2006, the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut’s Bronze Medal. In 2010, her book Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older won the American Horticultural Society Book Award.

A former drama teacher, lifelong gardener, and Newtown resident for 60 years, Eddison’s love of the English language has found its most satisfying expression in four volumes of poetry: Where We Walk: Poems rooted in the soil of New England (2015); Fragments of Time: Poems of gratitude for everyday miracles (2016); All the Luck: Poems celebrating love, life, and the enduring human spirit (2018); and Light Of Day: Poems from a lifetime of looking and listening (2019).

Sydney Eddison has always had an affinity for grasses. —Cynthia Kling photo
Ornamental grasses are much bigger, bolder plants that stay sturdy and strong well past their peak growing each season, as evidenced by this Miscanthus in the autumn season. —Kimberly Day Proctor photo
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