True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

Garden fancy comes and goes, changing about as often as women’s hemlines. It wasn’t so long ago that cannas were relegated to railroad depots and public parks.

Then ensued a period when the self same plants were considered bad, even vulgar, taste, as smaller and more pastel ingredients fit the decorative scene.

Ornamental grasses have fared the same, some 100 years ago considered de rigueur as good taste in any garden, mixed right in with other neighbors. They faded almost completely away, but in the last 40 years or so have reappeared on the scene once again.

Part of this is derived from gardens by the famous Piet Oudolf, a Dutch designer, who weighs heavily in on ornamental grasses in his largely prairie types of compositions, and others of his ilk.

The trickle down effect brought those grasses right into our home gardens, and most modern ornamental gardens feature them.

The movement began to get traction about when your present writer was beginning to design and build his own grounds, and so several are featured at the fancifully named Tennessee Dixter.

Early on, I was attracted to the giant of the crowd, in the species Arundo donax, particularly in its variegated form, with longitudinal stripes of white and green. I was driving in the Cottage Grove vicinity when a  big patch of it was noticed (you can’t miss it) in a front yard. I did not hesitate to inquire about taking a root of it and the man of the house said with alacrity, “Lawsy, I wish you’d take it all.” Well, I did not take it all, but I took enough to get me a good stand right off. After a couple of years I realized why my benefactor was so eager to get rid of it. About the third spring, the root system had at least doubled and it took a sharp ax and considerable manpower to oust enough to get the plantation under control. I have found it takes yearly curbing to keep it from taking over.

Other than that, it is a marvelous addition to all but the smallest gardens and causes more comment in spring when it first emerges than any other plant on our place. Later in summer, it will soar to 15 feet or more, but as individual stalks snap off easily the whole contraption can be kept at about eye level, with the additional plus of keeping the variegation sharp, since new growth is most vivid.

About the most popular class of ornamental grass is the miscanthus family, with varieties that range from 2 feet to 8 feet tall, and with various colors of foliage, including green and white striped. Their plumes of fuzzy seedheads in fall and winter are a great attraction too.

The miscanthuses, like most ornamental grasses, offer good winter structure when the leaves bleach to a pale tan color.

Then there is the native American switchgrass, of the species panicum. These range from some three feet to perhaps eight feet or more tall. Some years ago there was a movement to obtain fuel from them, but I think the effort has faded with reduction in gas prices and more availability of crude oil in the fracking process which has overcome some political opposition and, in the process, resulted in lower prices for oil.

At any rate, the ornamental value of panicums is bounding right along.

They are sometimes referred to as weedy, but I, for one, am fond of them, particularly the smaller varieties. The winter effect is also excellent, with some turning a burnished red in fall.

There are other, less well known, species of ornamental grasses that efficiently fill nooks here and there in any garden. Stay tuned.

JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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