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Grasses in the landscape

Grasses are invaluable in a wide diversity of designs for the garden landscape, putting on an extended winter show of various-shaped blades, once vibrant with many summer colours.

Now is an ideal time to plan garden and landscaping ideas. I use graft paper to design how the garden could look in reality, as it’s much easier to move plants around on paper, than back-breaking work in the garden.

Use one square on the graft paper for each square foot of garden space. Sketch the rocks and other artifacts onto the paper as well as plants. Taller plants such as perennial Karl Forester grass make an attractive backdrop placed several feet behind a large rock. If it were in front of the rock, this five-foot giant would eventually conceal it. For dimensional interest, plant tall and medium grasses midway, being careful not to obstruct the view of the attractive rocks. Position shorter plants among the foreground rocks for additional unity. Gravel and small stones surrounding the plants work well as a tidy, natural mulch and help to prevent soil erosion.

Each clump of grass has masses of fibrous roots. Some, called rhizomes, spread underground, while others spread by stems on top of the ground (stolons). Regular thinning and dividing is necessary to maintain healthy, attractive grass gardens.

Using grasses with other varieties of plants has become popular in non-formal styles of gardening. While waiting for perennial grasses to develop in their first year, a few annual bedding plants placed among the rocks will provide extra colour. The rounded blossoms of achillea, rudbeckias, and daisies blend in well with the more slender, vertical blades of grasses.

There are many hardy perennial varieties of grasses suitable for wintering over on the Prairies, including native grasses. From low-growing clumps, to taller plants with light, airy, plume-like spikes, each is unique in its own form and structure. Blue oat grass spreads readily, making it a good filler for in between rocks. Blue lyme grass is another blue-bladed grass with a vigorous, bushy height of four feet, and one-inch-wide blades.

Four-foot variegated white, pink and green foliage on Strawberries and Cream Phalaris provides a first-rate backdrop behind shorter grasses, while one-foot Elijah blue fescue with its dense, brilliant-blue needle-like foliage is best placed near the front of the border.

Annual grasses live for one season, with countless varieties of beautiful and attractive foliages. Many are sown from seed early indoors. Bunny Tail grass is easy to start for beginners, producing 15-inch plants with dense, woolly, bunny-like tails.

Fibre Optic sedge grass grows well in beds and containers but is not hardy enough to winter over in our Manitoba gardens. Seeds can be sown in early spring, or established plants are available at nurseries. Optic grass has beautiful, dense mounds of foliage with unique blooms that resemble fibre optic strands. Pennisetum is another that will not overwinter, but this beauty is well worth the price as its feathery seed heads put on a display from midsummer to fall, on four-foot foliage.

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