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"Ornamental Grasses, Purveyors of Whimsy and Drama," by the Whistling Gardener

When I think of ornamental grasses, I am reminded that some are hardy for our region and others have to be treated as annuals and discarded at the end of the season. Purple fountain grass for example, is a year around staple in Southern California gardens where its pinkish/purple feathery blooms just cry out to be touched.  
Ginger Love. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Whenever I think about what to write about this time of year, my mind always seems to migrate to ornamental grasses. Last year I wrote a comprehensive treatise on everything you need to know about how to grow and enjoy ornamental grasses in your garden. 

My focus this time around is to highlight a few varieties that recently caught my attention on my weekly visit to the nursery…

When I think of ornamental grasses, I am reminded that some are hardy for our region and others have to be treated as annuals and discarded at the end of the season. Purple fountain grass for example, is a year around staple in Southern California gardens where its pinkish/purple feathery blooms just cry out to be touched.  

In the northwest, garden centers don’t even stock it until May, and even then the foliage is still green and there are very few, if any flowers, to get excited about. Unless you know what this plant will do in the late summer, you would most likely walk right past it.  

The same can be said about another fountain grass called “Black Stockings.” This one is a larger and more open grass variety that is a perfect focal point for a larger container - with a consistent feeding it can reach four feet tall by the end of the summer. Now that is Drama Personified!

In the same genus as fountain grass, are the ornamental millets that come in eye-popping colors like the limy colored “Jade Princess” or the sultry dark Purple Baron.” Both varieties have dark brown, feathery spikes of flowers that exude drama in any arrangement.  

Because all of these annual grasses are heat lovers, they really don’t reach their stride until the month of August. Using these drama queens this time of year in containers gives a taste of fall to the arrangement, and again, if properly maintained with consistent water and fertilizer, should last well into the first frost or beyond.

On the perennial side of this subject, there has never been a more diverse palette of varieties than what is available in garden centers these days. It seems like every year the breeders find a new genus to offer us, or at least a new variation of an existing genus.  

I spied three perennial fountain grasses this week that are winners in my book. “Ginger Love,” according to Monrovia growers, “sports big, showy, upright, red plumes in late summer that persist through winter. It makes for a terrific contrast for use in rock gardens, borders, foundation plantings, or in perennial beds.”  

“Red Buttons” has been one of my favorites for a long time, but it is not as easily available in garden centers anymore. The plant forms a compact 24-inch-tall mound of grassy foliage topped with red, fuzzy flowers resembling bunny tails - it’s a cutie.  

Finally, a new one for me is “Slender Veldt” grass, a native to South Africa. It boasts compact foliage reaching one to two feet tall, but then the three inch to four inch tawny pink plumes ascend two to three feet above that to make a striking accent in the garden - it sure caught my eye!

Whether perennial or annual, grasses can play a major role in any late summer garden and as a whole, are very easy to grow and maintain. They do not spread and for the most part, do not self sow.  

Check out some of these late season standouts and take a few home to add to your garden, you will be glad you did.  Stay safe and keep on gardening!

Sunnyside will be hosting our next free online class, "Fabulous Fall Grasses," on Saturday, August 29th, at 10:00 am. For more information or to sign up, visit www.sunnysidenursery.net/classes.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

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