On gardening: Dancing grasses — magical movements in our gardens

Rhythmic motion captivates as it soothes — a group of dancers twirling in time with the music or the wind rippling through a field of uncut hay.
And in the garden motion always delights — as a host of swallowtail butterflies swarm over the spring lilacs, or a flock of cedar waxwings swoop in to feast on the ripening crabapples.
But such magical encounters with wildlife are all too brief. So, if you love the idea of movement in the garden but want it to endure, consider ornamental grasses. From June to October their graceful leaves and airy flowers will dance in the lightest breeze.
And grasses offer more than the magical gift of movement in your outdoor world. Some form expansive specimens visible a hundred feet away, whereas others are petite mounds to be appreciated up close. Still others create gauzy screens reminiscent of lace curtains in Victorian parlor windows.
Here are some personal favorites from my Goshen garden:
Short mounds all season long
The spiky blue-green mounds of Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) create a non-stop presence throughout the year and, each year in June they put up tall filmy flower-stalks that catch both sun and wind. At two feet high Blue Oat Grass clumps are like little porcupines that look fabulous alongside the fleshy leaves of Sedum “Autumn Joy” or a dark colored Heuchera.
Another grass for that front-of-the-bed spot is Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis). Its soft thin leaves eventually become a four-foot wide mop of hair — green all summer turning a lovely orange-yellow in fall.
Translucent screens for summer
The straight vertical Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster”) is readily recognized. Earlier this summer there was a grand display of Feather Reed Grass in the median at the western end of Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge (near the roundabout). The grasses created a dancing fence; each plant stood stiff and soldier-straight until the gentlest breeze set them undulating in unison.
The less well-known Tussock Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) is also a great addition to any garden. In June its two-foot high green hillocks send up a billowing cloud of flowers atop three-foot stems. Planted en masse Tussock Grass is perfect in a minimalist design. Alternatively just two or three plants, alongside some strong characters such as daylilies or Black-eyed Susans, make a lovely addition to the mixed border.
And, for a larger space, my personal favorite is Purple Moor Grass (Molinia arundinacea). In spring each plant makes a large green mound of leaves, three feet tall and five feet across, and then suddenly, towards the end of July, a mass of slender stems encased with delicate flowers, shoot up taller than me. I love to watch this diaphanous gauze dance in the morning dew, like a thousand diamonds.
These stems are actually deceptively strong. More than once in late autumn, I have watched a song sparrow cling to a single stem and feast on the abundance of seeds!
Architectural statements in autumn
Maiden Grasses are tough plants for large spaces. Reaching their full glory in September, just as many perennials are calling it quits, they will even withstand our winter snow without collapsing. Most are cultivars of the Chinese Silver Grass (Miscanthus sinensis), including “Sarabande” with wiry leaves and “Strictuss” with stripy leaves … take your pick.
I am also fond of Miscanthus “Purpurascens,” a cross of unknown origin, which turns a glorious orange-red in fall. Since it grows a little shorter, it is a better choice for the not-so-big garden.
But, for a more delicate feel, seek out the lovely North American prairie grasses that also grow extremely well in Vermont. Several cultivars of Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) with bluish stems growing about up to six feet high, can be found in local nurseries. One of the best, with stems turning wine-red in early September, is called “Shenandoah.”
And then there is the beautiful fine-textured Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) that also becomes streaked with red as the fall approaches. The cultivar “The Blues” grows just three feet high, a nice size for most gardens.
Using grasses for best effect in the garden
Match your space: Even the smallest garden has room for smaller grasses, such as Blue Oat Grass, Tussock Grass, “The Blues” Bluestem, or perhaps the taller but still slender Feather Reed Grass. But, should you have an expansive country garden, then a stand of Miscanthus “Purpurascens” or a grouping of Purple Moor Grass will fill your space admirably.
Create a meadow-style planting: Emulate the way wildflowers grow along our country roads or in the meadows by mixing easygoing perennials — Daylilies, Black-eyed Susans, Shasta Daisies or Purple Cone Flowers — with fine-textured grasses.
Position delicate grasses to catch the morning or evening light: When illuminated by low-angled light, slender grasses such as Tussock Grass and Purple Moor Grass look positively diaphanous, so place them where you can enjoy them at these times.
Choose clumpers; Avoid runners: Pick varieties of grass, such as the ones mentioned here, that spread by gradually enlarging their base clump, (usually described as “clump-forming”). But be sure to avoid anything that spreads via rhizomes (described as “rhizomatous”)! After a decade I am still living with the bad effects of experimenting with Blue Lyme grass, Elymus arenarius, which offers an attractive coloration, BUT has rhizomes that travel both wide and deep. The only way to use something like that in the garden is to grow it in a pot or contain it inside a vertical root barrier that extends three feet below ground level. Not worth the effort for this gardener!
Enjoy your grasses all winter long. Snow or no snow, tougher grasses remain relatively unscathed through the long months of winter, and, etched with the frost, their skeletons look utterly surreal. So wait until spring before consigning your Blue Oat , Tussock , Feather Reed or Maiden Grasses to the compost pile.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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