It’s hard to get fired up about these dried up plants in the winter garden, looking brown and dead. We know in our hearts that the plant juice is still pumping underground, but honestly, knowing that doesn’t make them any more attractive. Except for the grasses. It is all about the movement, as one looks out the window, watching the birds flit around the feeders, the slightest breeze bends those slender blades of grass here and yon.
Shown above,blue oat grass, helictotrichon sempervirens, ‘Blue Saphhire’.

Reading Pam at Digging’s January 22, 2008 post ‘Miscanthus In Winter’ reminded me of the stalwart grasses pulling the load of winter interest. Shown above, miscanthus ‘Morning Light’.

Sometimes the grasses do a better job of growing than one expects. It has been mentioned in an early post that we bought the house next door, tore it down and built a garage there. That left us with two driveways into the street. We made a circle drive, a longtime dream come to reality. That created an island bed bordered by the street on one side and the half circle of the driveway on the other. The vision was two large pampas grasses ,cortaderia selloana, at either end, Big Pampa. You may not believe this, but a six pack of tiny pampas seedlings was found at the grocery among the begonias and marigolds that first year after the driveway was paved. They were about three inches tall, with two or three blades in each cell. Three cell’s worth were combined at each end of the driveway island. Four years later, the flower spikes were ten feet tall.

These had become monster grasses, way beyond the vision of gently swaying plumes. The dried winter blades also blew all over the neighborhood, and they were sharp. You can probably see what’s coming.

Cut down and dug out, at great cost of a broken english shovel. There may be lovers of the look of the pampas, but let me steer you to be sure and select the dwarf variety if you simply must have it.

In that same driveway island bed was planted some of the black seeded pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, along with red twig dogwoods. The rumor is true about this grass being a rampant self sower, but the island bed is a safe spot for it, the babies are welcome here.

Another grass that is much loved at Faire Garden, Japanese blood grass,imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’, has appeared on some of the bad plant lists as well. It does not spread wildly here, I have to help it along, transplanting pieces in early spring and late fall to help fill in. The vision is a sea of red.

There is one grass that we prize above all others, pink muhly grass, muhlenbergia capillaris. We are at the northern range of its hardiness in our zone 7a, but it has wintered over without fail for seven years now. The first plant was purchased at Lowe’s. It has been divided and seeded to produce enough plants for nearly every area of the garden. Too much is not enough.

In late September the thicker blades shoot up above the rest to reveal the flower spike. It reminds us of cotton candy.

A companion of the mums, holding the pink color well over a month, this is the show piece of the fall garden.

It is best viewed with the sunlight behind to get the other worldly hue.

It is a perfect foil for the bronze pink dogwood leaves and the darker pink Knockout rose. There are many more grasses grown here. They all are held dear and perform their tasks well. Low edgers, tall accents, black, blue, gold, green, red and variegated add beauty and contrasting form to the leaves and flowers of their neighbors. But none have the wow factor like the pink muhly in bloom.
This vision is pink,

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28 Responses to Grasses

  1. Nan Ondra says:

    A great post, Frances. I loved the shot of Imperata; that’s one of my favorites too. What a great color! The Muhlenbergia capillaris is such a stunner, too. You have some really nice shots of the way it can catch the light. I can actually grow it here in mid-Zone 6, in a site with rather heavy, winter-wet soil. It does not know it isn’t supposed to tolerate that, and I’m not about to tell it so.

  2. Jim/ArtofGardening says:

    I gotta’ get me some of that pink muhly grass. I can add it to my grasslands, which is basically a strip of dirt between the driveway and fence. If Nan can grow it in Zone 6, I can get away with it here too.

  3. Diana says:

    I love your grasses, and the fact that you were inspired by Pam and her post! That’s the best part about blogging. You inspired me to do a post on Faces in the Garden! Your statuary is beautiful, and since our winter blog material is a little sparse, I thought, “what a great idea!” So, thanks for inspiring me, Frances. I hope you enjoy the faces in my garden!

  4. jodi says:

    I love grasses, and wish I could have the pampas grass here–we have the room for it to do its thing. And the Muhlenbergia…that won’t ever be here, but what a glorious grass it is! I think I’d swap blue poppies for that wonderful colour, Frances. The bloodgrass croaked on me the one time I planted it, so I’ll try it again in another location.

  5. chuck b. says:

    I like the Japanese Blood Grass too, tho’ I don’t have it in my garden. It’s one of those things I like to enjoy in other gardens.

    So you dug up a pampas grass! Wow! I’ve heard that’s back-breaking work. In your case, only shovel-breaking. The leaf blades are sharp indeed. A neighbor in childhood had several clumps of pampas grass and we used it as a fort. Other species from that genus are noxious weeds on the California coast. And they harbor rats.

  6. Frances says:

    nan…thanks. Even these photos don’t do justice to the muhly. I must do better this year since a new bed of it was planted along the driveway in the line of sight of my kitchen window. That’s great you can grow it too!

    Jim…Yes, do get some! One can’t have too much.

    Diana…thanks. There are so many great reads now, and thanks to blotanical it is easier to keep up with the new posts too. I will certainly check out your faces!

    jodi…I’ll swap for those blue poppies for sure! The bloodgrass was a failure in my other TN garden a little farther north, but I think it was planted in a less well drained site. It can be late to ‘red’ up in the spring and needs to be cut to the ground before the new growth starts, mid Feb here.

    chuck b…I will never plant any pampas again, but had to get it out of my system, loving it in other’s gardens. There are so many plume producing grasses that are much nicer. I had to get the help of the mens at Faire Garden to dig that up. I would never have broken that fancy expensive shovel. Now I know one should use a crowbar for such tasks!

  7. chickenpoet says:

    The muhlenbergia capillaris gives Faire Garden such an enchanted fairytal feel. It is one of my most favorite of all in the place, along with the flowering quice, and the roses. Much Love.

  8. Frances says:

    chickenpoet…I will give you some of the muhly this spring, that is the best time to plant it for you so it can get established before the cold, if you don’t already have it. Love.

  9. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Grasses are beauts during winter fooling you into thinking that are alive and well singing and swaying in the wind.

    I love Jap Bloodgrass but it refuses to grow well in my sandy soil. It gets very sparce and looks pitaful.

    I would love to try that pink grass tho. Maybe this year.

    I have so many maybes for this year I don’t know what to do. This is all due to all this time to “dream”…

  10. Frances says:

    Lisa…Those bronze carex grasses especially can fool you with their year round brownish color. My test is a little tug, if they come right up out of the ground, well you know. We are fortunate today, a break in the temps will let me play outside, with a jacket. Yippee!

  11. karen says:

    You certainly know your grasses. I too am battling a monster stand of pampas. Every year I seem to miss a bit and back it comes. I have a muhly that I bought from Wayside after admiring it on the dunes one fall. It is absolutely lovely and much bigger than I thought.

    I am not sure of the species, since there are so many and they are often mislabeled. Various species of muhly are the “sweetgrass” of sweet grass baskets. They are becoming rare in the wild as developers bulldoze the landscape. I have romantic fantasies that we might save the sweetgrass basket industry by planting it in the garden!

  12. Frances says:

    karen…thanks. I have seen the wild sweet grass on Kiawah Island in South Carolina, even bought some of those baskets. It seems a little coarser that what I have. I was able to grown some in Houston and it seeded nicely. Save the baskets!!!

  13. Nicole says:

    What gorgeous grasses you have, there! That pink muhly is a vision.
    I actually hope to plant some pampas grass in our new garden-our landscape and terrain requires large, dramatic plantings. I can’t get any grasses here, so I hope to start from seeds sometime-or maybe get some starts from a nursery in the US.

  14. Kylee says:

    Beautiful grasses, Frances! The muhly – ah, so ethereal. I wish it were a perennial here!

  15. Yolanda Elizabet says:

    I love grasses a lot too, no surprise as I’m Dutch. That pink muhly is my favorite too, it’s simply gorgeous! Thanks for sharing all those lovely pics!

  16. Frances says:

    nicole…Thanks. I have to warn you about the blades of the pampas if you are going to cut it to the ground each year, wear super protective clothing and gloves. It is so sharp, it even cut my face when it brushes against it, every other part of me was covered.

    Kylee…Thanks. We consider ourselves very lucky for our zone, although it seems to be inching toward zone 8, luckier still!

    yolanda Elizabet…Thanks, I didn’t know, do the Dutch have a thing for grasses? The camera may never capture the true color of the muhly, it is exquisite.

    Linda Lunda…I am sorry that your comment was deleted by mistake. Thank you for visiting and welcome! Please try again and I will be more careful with my typing!

  17. Pam/Digging says:

    I would love to have the blue oat grass and the blood grass. I also love that other Japanese grass that is used to great effect in cool, damp northwestern gardens (the name escapes me).

    For my hot, southwestern garden, the miscanthus and muhlies and stipas do really well. I find the miscanthus leaves to be very sharp too, though perhaps not as sharp as pampas grass, which is not recommended in Austin due to its invasiveness.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  18. Frances says:

    Pam…Thanks. Maybe you mean hakonechloa, Japanese forest grass? I tried it but it got smaller each year and then disappeared. I remember the pampas everywhere along the roadside in Houston, yikes!

  19. Nicole says:

    Thanks Frances, for the tips. I am not sure whether we have to cut the grass down every year in the tropics-I’ll do some reading on that.
    Now that info on the blades being sharp makes me think about placing it where it can also act as a “passive” deterrent to intruders-the way we plant agave and bougainvilleas on fences.

  20. chcikenpoet says:

    You did give me a patch of muhly at Thanksgiving; but I would never turn down an offer for more. The patch you gave me is brown at the moment, I hope it will make it through the winter and make a fairytale backdrop for my slope. I think it would look pretty intermingled with Semi’s pink Hollyhocks she gave me.

  21. Frances says:

    Nicole…The pampas could be counted as a deterrent plant for sure. Might I also recommend the rose Alberic Barbier, known here as killer, so thorny, no one could escape it, even get tangled up in a growing jail!

    chickenpoet…around March 1 look at your muhly for some new green growth in the center. It can be cut to about six inches then. What a sight that would be on your slope with pink muhly and pink hollyhocks, stunning! Love.

  22. semi says:

    ahhhh muhly, what a lovely grass. It is the best. I can’t wait to see what the grasses I bought this year do. I need some grass on the hill also. I think I managed to keep some of the bloodgrass alive this year.But i really love the way yours is together. I will have to keep that in mind. love semi

  23. Frances says:

    semi…thanks. It is hard to beat that muhly. The blood grass spreads by underground runners and will fill in, slowly. It doesn’t like competition though.

  24. brokenbeat says:

    one of the best posts yet, frances. beautifully written. hopefully, like the rest of your offspring, i reap the vegetative benefits of the grasses you gave me to harvest. chickenpoet, our muhly seem to share the same appearance, and now we are both excited that, by frances’ reassurance, they are not dead. anyone for a little chanting? all hail muhly grass?

  25. Frances says:

    brokenbeat…why thank you. Wait until the new bed of muhly lining the driveway, easily 100 plants blooms this year. Each piece was tiny when planted two years ago. Upon inspecting yours, look for any little bit of green in the center, that is the hint of life. You only need one strand of green, it will grow from that.Love.

  26. Annie in Austin says:

    Hi Frances – just catching up with some of your posts – the grasses look great in your Faire Garden. I don’t have many grasses now – unless you count lirope and ophiopogon. You and Pam are tempting me to recconsider them!

    At our other TX house Pampas grass had been planted as a kind of disguise for the utility boxes – and it looked pretty good to this transplanted Northern. But we had to actually go into the interior of the clumps to read the meters, and the resulting slices from blades like razors took months to heal. Like you, we eliminated the pampas pretty fast.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  27. Frances says:

    Annie, thanks for stopping by and digging into some of the older posts. That’s what they’re there for. Boy, people don’t realize how awful those pampas blades can be. Maybe your story will help change their minds.

  28. M. D. Vaden of Oregon says:

    =Just finished dividing those ornamental grasses in our own yard a few weeks ago. Which provide more new plants, or gifts for other home gardeners.

    Its a graceful and attractive plant.

    MDV / Oregon

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