Ornamental Grasses – Part 1

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Ornamental grasses add color and texture to landscaping

Frequently overlooked and under-appreciated by most gardeners, ornamental grasses can add beautiful height, texture, and even fragrance. While it is true that the majority of ornamental grasses do best in full sun, a number will also tolerate shade as long as it is not too heavy and their other cultural needs are met.

Grasses for Part Sun

Among the useful grasses or grasslike plants are tufted hair grass (Deschampsia caespitosa), millet grass (Milium effusum), Hokonechloa macra ‘Albo-aurea’, variegated lily turf (Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’), and ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea var. picta). These vary from about 1 to 3 feet tall. Somewhat shorter are Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus), Alpine hair grass (Deschampsia alpina), and blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca). And quite a bit taller are northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), creeping bluestem (Andropogon stolonifera), bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis), and bush grass (Calamagrostis epigejos), which may range from 2 to 6 feet tall.

Well-Behaved Grasses

One of the common complaints about grasses is the invasive nature of many of them. Anything with runners — ribbon grass (phalaris arundinacea), blue lyme grass (Leymus arenarius), and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) are the classic examples — is likely to be a problem. If you’re taken with something that comes without a description, tip it out of the pot and look for signs of runners (underground shoots with upward-pointing tips) before you take it home.

And almost anything with seeds will self-sow, that being what the seeds are for, though some, such as the fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.), do it more aggressively than others. Be careful of plants described as self-sowing “manageably”; someone has got to do the managing, and that someone will be you. Nurseries are increasingly conscientious about labelling possible invaders, but it’s still best to check with your local extension service before you purchase and plant.

Fragrant Grasses

Several ornamental grasses give off appealing fragrance when their leaves are rubbed or broken. They include lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus), and sweetgrass or vanilla grass (Hierochloe odorata). When dried, sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) is fragrant as well. Sweet flag (Acorus calamus) is a scented grasslike plant, but not a true member of the grass family.

Grasses for Cold Climates

Many of the most popular ornamental grasses are very hardy, including Miscanthus sinensis cultivars such as ‘Morning Light’ and ‘Purpurascens’; midsize favorites like the feather reed grass Calamagrostis arundinacea ‘Overdam’; yellow foxtail grass (Alopecurus pratensis), which seldom grows taller than a foot; and it’s even shorter cousin, A. alpinus ssp. glaucus, a 4-inch charmer with very blue leaves.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum conducted a large study of cold-hardy ornamental grasses and has published the results in North Central Regional Publication No. 573, “Ornamental Grasses for Cold Climates.” Call 952.443.1400 for information about how to obtain the booklet.

 

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A Hosta Lover’s Dream Convention

By Tammy Borden, Outagamie County Master Gardener

When I bought my first home, it had one variety of hosta that bordered the foundation of the house. With a shady backyard, I eventually began adding garden beds containing other kinds of hosta. When I reached 50 different varieties, I realized my hobby had evolved into a collection. Fast forward and I now have nearly 600 varieties surrounding my yard.

In those early days, I just knew I liked hostas. I never imagined there was such a thing as the American Hosta Society (AHS) — a dedicated group of other hosta enthusiasts from around the country who hold an annual convention. When I discovered the group, my eyes were opened to new aspects about the genus, such as cross-breeding, sun tolerance, tissue cultures, and more.

dick2When I attended my first AHS convention in Indianapolis, I got to meet others who shared a love of what many call the “friendship plant.” Appropriately, I’ve formed many new friendships as a result. I also got to meet many of the hybridizers who bred the plants — some of them pioneers in the hosta industry such as Dick and Jane Ward. I have the hosta named ‘Dick Ward,’ (pictured) and now I think of him each time I walk b

Other hybridizers included Olga Petryszyn who is
known for her hosta of the year for 2017, ‘Brother
Stefan.’ I also met Doug Beilstein who strives to breed standout varieties with unusual leaf characteristics such as 2018 hosta of the year, ‘World Cup.’ Now, when I walk around my garden, I feel an even greater connection to many plants because I’ve met those who introduced them into the market… and I feel like I have a connection to them, too.

The AHS national convention is held in a different city each year. It was in Philadelphia in June 2018 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. In 2019, I’m excited to let you know that it’s coming to Green Bay, Wisconsin! If you’re a hosta enthusiast like me, or if you’re just starting to gain an interest, I invite you to join me and several hundred others from across the country and around the world. Here are some details…

American Hosta Society National Convention
June 12–15, 2019
Radisson Hotel & Convention Center, Green Bay, WI

Registration Information: www.ahs2019event.org
The theme for the 2019 convention is Hostaffinity, a reflection of the relationship that we as gardeners share with each other and our beloved plants. Featuring: 11 Stunning Garden Tours – Vendors – Leaf Show and Seedling Competition – Speakers: Rick Goodenough, Don Dean, Olga Petryszyn, Doug Beilstein, and Jeff Miller

Trademarks and Patents

When you’re shopping for your plants, did you ever notice that some of them are patented and others are trademarked. What’s the difference? Does a patent or trademark mean that these are better than other plants?

Plant patents, given to the breeder of a new plant, prevent anyone else from selling that plant or using it as one of the parents in a breeding program without permission — and without paying royalty fees, which are promptly passed on to those who buy the plants. Patents aren’t a guarantee that a plant is better, just that it is different.

The benefit to gardeners is that breeding new plants is a very long, expensive process, filled with many more failures than successes. Without patent protection, and royalties, fewer companies would take the risk.

Trademarks are names or symbols used to identify a product. The raised letters ™ mean that the designation is claimed as a trademark, and ® means that it has been registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

A trademark is simply a marketing tool, used to create an identification between the plant and the company. The company hopes that your previous good experience with one of its plants will convince you to buy from it again.

Theoretically, companies put their reputations on the line and have a vested interest in providing you with a high-quality, well-grown plant. They hope that if gardeners have an easier time making choices, they may find it worth the additional cost.

Paying more for trademarked and patented plants may mean a future of fewer small nurseries with a wide range of plants, and more large-chain garden centers with rows of the same plants. But remember, a lot of things can happen between the grower and your yard. How a local nursery or mail-order supplier handles a plant before you guy it makes everything else moot. Good plants come from people who care about them.

Easy Growers

Who’s already thinking about spring? Have the seed catalogs started filling your mailbox? Perhaps you’re starting a new garden, or you’re a new gardener. With that in mind, let’s tackle some of the easiest annuals to add to your garden.

The easiest annuals to grow from seed are those that sow themselves. Alyssum, calendula, cosmos, larkspur, nocotiana, nigella, and poppies will all come back the following year as long as you leave some seed heads and the seeds fall on receptive ground*. With this group, you only have to plant once. I’ve had good luck with dianthus as well.

The next easiest are those whose seed is large: marigolds, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and zinnias. Annual phlox is also a reliable choice, as is portulaca (moss rose).

Bear in mind that larkspur, nigella, and poppies are cool-weather germinators, so if you’re starting from scratch, be sure to sow their seeds as soon as the ground can be worked.

No matter how quickly they grow, annuals need a couple of months to make it to blooming size, so if you want them to flower in summer you’ll need to choose things that get growing in early spring, well before the last frost. The list is short but there are a few, including annual poppies, annual phlox, larkspur, nigella, silene, and bupleurum (a little-known but valuable bouquet filler that looks a bit like chartreuse eucalyptus). For best results, plant the seeds in fall the way the flowers themselves do. They will sprout in spring when conditions are right.

If you don’t mind waiting until late summer for your flowers to bloom, the list can be expanded to include calendula, rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans), and asters. These need a bit more warmth to germinate or, in the case of the asters, a longer growing time so they don’t start flowering as soon as those listed above; but they don’t mind light frosts and can (usually) be relied on for color in September and October.

*Receptive Ground: as it relates to self-sown seed, receptive ground is nothing more complicated than reasonably loose soil that has room at the surface for something new to take hold. It need not be weed-free, or as soft and smooth as soil that has been thoroughly cultivated and raked. All that is necessary is an occasional bare place; the seeds will take it from there.

Home Alone

House-Plants-All-My-Favorite-Low-Maintance-House-Plants-5As the holidays are coming to an end, and the cold weather sets in, many of us are looking forward to getting away to warmer temperatures for a while. But, what about your houseplants while you’re gone?! Only a plant-savvy human being can give an assortment of houseplants the different amounts of water they’re likely to need while they are home alone. But it isn’t always easy to find a willing plant sitter, and it’s even harder to find one who not only means well but has houseplant skills (returning to find that two-thirds of one’s little green children have drowned is no better than finding them dried to a crisp). So if you must leave them unattended, the following steps should keep them alive — if not happy — for up to a month.

  1. One at a time, bring the plants into very bright light and check them over top to bottom for pests and diseases. Don’t forget to look under the leaves and against the stems where they enter the soil. Problems that are very small now can balloon in your absence, and since the plants will be grouped together, those problems are likely to spread. Any afflicted plants should be treated and, for good measure, kept quarantined in a room of their own while you’re gone.
  2. Decide on a water-delivery system, ideally one that is triggered by the plant itself. Like the overzealous friend, timer-driven waterers usually deliver more than the plants need. Garden-supply stores and catalogs sell an assortment of capillary mats and water wicks that are less likely to drown plants, or you can go the low-tech route and opt for just supplying humidity (put the plants in plastic dish tubs lined with deep layers of pebbles or styrofoam peanuts and shallow layers of water.
  3. Set up the system where the plants will stay cool and get only a small amount of light. The bathroom is probably the best place since it is usually both cool and dark, and is the room best protected against water damage. If the plants will all fit in the tub, plan to put them there. Don’t draw the shower curtain unless the room is very bright.
  4. Water everything thoroughly. Soak clay pots until saturated; bottom-water plants in plastic pots until soil at the surface is wet. Let excess water drain, then group plants closely but not tightly — there must be a bit of air circulation or they’ll all get fungus diseases.
  5. Speak to them lovingly and close the door. They’ll be fine.

Winter Window Boxes

There is nothing quite so forlorn as an empty window box in winter, which is why you so often see them filled with arrangements of evergreens. However, if you prefer dried material, there are quite a few choices that should last until early spring as long as they are protected from high winds and heavy snow.

You can experiment with any plant that has an interesting outline or decorative parts. Among those with long-lasting seedpods or berries are clematis, Queen Anne’s lace, bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), roses, gas plant (Dictamnus albus), love-in-a-mist, and honesty.

winter-window-boxes-and-winterizing-window-boxes-1

Mixed evergreen species with berries, pinecones, dried hydrangea blooms, and red twig dogwood branches

Possible flowers include cockscomb, globe thistle, sea holly, globe amaranth, goldenrod, strawflower, yarrow, and many plumed grasses. My own personal favorite, though, is massed hydrangea flowers mixed with greens.

For a contrast, use silver-leaved species like dusty miller: ‘Silver King’ or ‘Silver Queen’ artemisia, or lamb’s ears.

Bringing Hibiscus Indoors

Over-wintering large, flowering tropical plants like Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is always a challenge. They never thrive in the living room the way they do outdoors. Leaves turn yellow and drop, flowers seldom appear. Assorted pests do appear — in droves. No wonder gardeners dream of exiling these shrubs to the basement, where they can be out of sight and out of mind until spring.

This kind of hibiscus never sleeps, however, and trying to store yours as though it were dormant may give you a rude awakening. If you want to try it anyway, keep the plants cool, 45º to 50ºF. Expect them to drop all their leaves. They will likely get bugs. And they will still need to be brought into light well before summer planting time.

A better choice is a room that gets lots of light and is cool enough to slow growth, 60º to 65º. If you must put hibiscus plants in the living room, keep them in the sunniest place, away from direct heat and far enough from the window so they don’t suffer big temperature swings from night to day. There is no point in misting, but if you don’t have a humidifier this would be a good excuse to get one. Keep the soil barely but consistently moist, and don’t feed unless flowers appear. Watch out for aphids, whiteflies, and red spider mites. If you see them, treat promptly with insecticidal soap.

Hibiscus is tough. The plants will not be glorious inside, but they will survive. Cut them back in late April, removing leggy branches and working to create a pleasing shape. New growth should start almost at once. It is tempting to set the plants out as soon as the danger of frost is past, but hibiscus is a heat lover that will be happier inside until it is warm out day and night — late May or early June.

Alternatively, treat hibiscus as an annual indulgence. While they are still beautiful, give your plants to somebody with big windows and no qualms about getting rid of ailing ornamentals. Enjoy a carefree winter, and get new ones next year.