Friday, August 3

Natives, Grasses

Much has been written lately about the benefits of using native plants. I love the idealism and energy of many of those who champion natives, and the idea that natives are a good source for the "right plant" to put in a certain place in your garden makes sense. After all, if a plant is predisposed to living in your soil and climate, you won't be spending a lot of time and effort working to make it happy.

On the flip side, gardening is inherently artificial and I firmly believe that even if you use all natives you will not have a truly "natural" garden. From an artistic standpoint, there are some natives that I feel are not particularly garden-worthy, and some nonnatives that I would hate to do without. And then there is the slippery slope of defining what exactly qualifies a plant as native.

Not every plant labeled "native" is indigenous to my state. Many plants that are Ohio natives, like the gorgeous trillium grandiflorum that grows wild in the woods behind my parents' house, would not be happy in my poor, sandy soil on the Lake Erie shore. Some garden cultivars of popular plants could be a cross between a native parent and a nonnative cousin--or a cultivars of a native plant that was developed in another country. So which plants qualify as native and which ones fail the test? There are many shades of gray in this complex issue.

My personal response has been to try to follow a pragmatic use of natives. I try to keep natives in mind and if it makes sense both practically and aesthetically to use a native, I do. If a nonnative is a better fit and is not potentially invasive, I have no qualms about choosing it instead. And so my garden spans the spectrum between natives and nonnatives, as you see in the second picture. A German-bred cultivar of our lovely native switchgrass, panicum virgatum 'Rotstrahlbusch,' peaks out behind a decidedly exotic 'Wyoming' canna and mingles with an amaranth whose seed was used by Native American tribes in the American Southwest.

Some U.S. natives that I find particularly enjoyable and easy to work into the garden are the native grasses. Bill over at Prairie Point often shows gorgeous pictures of these in their native habitats, and several recent shots featured schizachyrium scoparium--much easier to refer to by its common name, little bluestem. (Call me a chicken, but even with a little help from Fine Gardening Magazine I would never try to pronounce that in front of anyone who knew botanical Latin!)

Bill mentioned in the accompanying post that he wasn't sure why more gardeners didn't use little bluestem as an ornamental. I wholeheartedly agree, as the cultivar 'The Blues' is a stunner in my garden. Carefree blue foliage that deepens to reddish pink in the fall, relatively drought tolerant, fine in full or part sun--not much to complain about there!

Here you see one of my two 3-plant clumps of little bluestem. This one lives on the southeastern corner of my house where it gets full sun until about 2pm. Behind it is a pyracantha that I am beginning to train against the wall and beside it is the same clump of canna that you see in the switchgrass picture above.

At 2 years old they have not yet reached their mature height of 3-4 feet, but already they provide a nice vertical line in the garden. These fine-textured verticals soften the potentially jarring transition between the harsh line of the 2-story house the wide garden bed next to it.

One last native grass that I adore is Indiangrass, sorghastrum nutans. I was initially intrigued by the hue of the blades on 'Sioux Blue,' but it was the inflourescences that made me go back to Bluestone Perennials and order two more this spring. (You can see these in the very first picture at the top of this post.) They glowed golden in the setting sun from late summer on, with the color reminding me of glittering fields of wheat back home.

In this picture, you see the oldest and tallest of my three plants with its new neighbors: lilium, chocolate eupatorium, 'Regina' heuchera, horehound, a variegated sedum, purple leaf clover and a patch of 'Crow Feather' tiarella. The sorghastrum was chosen for this shallow "driveway bed" because it has a relatively slim profile compared to other grasses of similar height, like miscanthus. The two newer 'Sioux Blue' are evenly spaced along a 20 foot stretch of this same bed in an effort to give the area some repetition and help me avoid that bitty look.

I do have a few other U.S. native grasses on my radar for future consideration. Next year I want to reseed my back yard with a lawn of blue grama grass now that High Country Gardens put that on my radar, and there is a lovely new cultivar of little bluestem called 'Blaze' that features dark orange fall foliage... but I admit that I also hope that my clumps of the bronze carex buchanii, which hails from New Zealand, grow enough to warrant dividing next year.


Bob said...

Hi Kim, I just came to tell you about Matron looking for gardeners assistants like Coco but I see she already got here first - I'm not known for great speed LOL! Bob.

Anonymous said...

Nice post about natives, and nice photo illustrations. The little bluestem looks great in your garden, as it did in the more-natural areas of Bill's property. A versatile little grass!

Anonymous said...

I agree Kim. Walking the fine line between native/non-native plant species in a setting completely devoid of nature's spontaneity is a seeming tightrope.

But I think you've captured the heart of what more gardeners are aspiring to achieve by utilizing plants that may/may not be indigenous to their area but are certainly better suited to the local climes.

I love your use of the bluestems and they contrast so well with the rest of the plants you have in your garden bed. Great pics.

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful post and one many of us can really identify with. I love the natives, they are the backbone of my garden! Your bluestem looks lovely!

Annie in Austin said...

Your grasses look good in your combinations, Kim, and Pam/Digging uses hers well. Bill's photos speak Texas. But my present garden has only the reseeding native inland sea oats, in an out-of-the-way place.

I went through an intense ornamental grass phase back in IL during the late 80's-early 90's, and was tired of them when I got here. Maybe I'll fall in love with them again some day - especially if you guys keep putting on such wonderful photos ;-]

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Anonymous said...

Those bluestem do look good in your garden. I am glad to see someone using it in a cultivated bed.

I am a big advocate of native plants. On the other hand I love my roses and irises. I wouldn't want to do without either.

In Texas it is especially confusing as to what is a native plant. Houston and Amarillo are not very similar climates! A lot of the "natives" that are popular with gardeners in the big cities are really from hundreds of miles away in the southwest Texas deserts. As far as i am concerned that is okay though. The plants grow fine in places like Dallas and they have a characteristic "western" or "texas" look to them that people like.

(someday I will figure out how to get a blogger id)

Ottawa Gardener said...

Nice post. Though I'd like to add that local flora and fauna also appreciate native plantings. But I was thinking about this the other day when I entertained the thought of moving to the country. I think if I do that I will allow the woods to be a walking place or garden with some selective weeding. I say that now...

Seeing this post has made me crave some wide angled shots of what is undoutedly your glorious garden.

P.S. I love grasses too.

Gloria said...

Kim your post is interesting as usual.
Plants have a way of traveling and evolving as they travel. In north america a wildflower like camass or helenium span the whole continent adjusting to soil and weather patterns along the way.
Pollination crosses, sports, simply moving on by carrier give a mobility to plants not often recognized.Native to where? Wherever it survives after the initial move or change. The earth speaks in ages not moments.
So then,you are only the instrument of change in your own garden, doing what creatures of the earth have always done in one way or another, aiding plants in their survival.
I am an advocate of growing natives so that the gene pool remains diverse and the wildlife has a chance to co-evolve. But I have never said others should not grow what they desire. I give my opinion as you have yours. It bothers me that some feel natives have no place at all. Our gardens are part of nature as are we. We alter our habitat in larger ways but still the rain and soil and sun are necessary.

Yolanda Elizabet Heuzen said...

I usually go for plants that do well in my climate and in the soil (heavy clay) that my garden provides. They can be either native or nonnative plants. I don't care which it is, as long as they do well. I wouldn't be without the many plants from foreign countries that do so very well here.

Like you I love the ornamental grasses although not as much as Piet Oudolf does. ;-)

A wildlife gardener said...

I mainly grow the wild flowers which are found in the meadows here, as they are good companions to the cultivated plants and flowers and they feed the insects, birds and mammals which come to the garden.

But your question is a valid point. I grow nonnative plants too, though usually in pots and troughs.

I like all the tones in your grasses. I grow the giant stipa grass, blue fescue, and bronze carex in the garden. In the ponds we have many different grasses.

I think you blend the tones and textures very well :)

Anonymous said...

I think I may have bluestem in my garden. I couldn't agree more about the natives. I've always had a bit of environmentalist in me and natives seemed to be the way to go until I really started researching the subject. It's amazing how much grey area there is. In addition to what you mentioned, different books will contradict, some only define natives as Natives to the's a hard subject to firmly grasp.

Entangled said...

This is a topic I've been mulling over as I try to come up with a list of plants I'd like to have in my "butterfly meadow". Right now, it's an abandoned field with plenty of non-native plants which the butterflies are quite happy with. On the other hand, a meadow seems a very appropriate place to repopulate exclusively with native plants. But then I come up against the idea that, because of woody succession, maybe there really isn't any such thing as a "natural" meadow in the eastern US anyway.

Here in Virginia, the DOT has planted "wildflowers" in the medians of many 4-lane roads. A good many of these "wildflowers" are Cosmos bipinnatus, native to Mexico and the southwest US, but not here in VA.

This is rambling comment, I know, but it accurately reflects my thinking. ;-)

Melissa said...

You really are too cool. I have a corner of the yard I dug up and am throwing my compost in (I like to create lasagna beds) for a grass bed mixture next spring.

My husband thinks I am nut as I am allergic to grass pollens but I am also allergic to my zucchini plants and the tomato plants. I can eat their fruit but the plants make me break out - especially zucchini and sometimes even the zucchini fruit does when it isn't cooked. If I brought a sunflower in the house, I would die of misery. So why not plant grass! :)

Anyhow, more beds mean less mowing!!

Stratoz said...

age or wisdom has made me happy to come across moderates and weary of extremists. Loved your attitude about natives.

made me think about my fear of grasses....... may be an attitude that needs to moderate.


kris said...

I use some native plants - and some hybrids of native plants - in my gardens - I love the idea. But could I live without my hibiscus, for instance? NO! So, like you, I try and reach a happy balance.

I totally agree with you on the grasses. It took me awhile to warm up to grasses in the garden, but now that I've used them, I love them! I have little bluestem and a miscanthus and some stripey grass that a friend gave me. They're very fun - and add a wonderful texture to the autumn garden (and winter until we get a heavy snowfall). My only complaint is I have to put them in a garden space that my dogs can't access - Kobie LOVES to eat grass! Your photos are lovely as usual - and I always enjoy seeing your thought process.

Unknown said...

Hi UK Bob, and thanks for stopping by either way! I've seen your to-do list for the big house gardens this week--they always seem so long and involved that I'm impressed you find the time to pop in at all.

pam/digging, it sure is a versatile grass--and such great color, too! Your compliment means a lot, as I must admit that I often look to your plantings for inspirations on how to use grasses well in the garden.

Stuart, you are so right on, and I wish that I had put it so well. It's the lack of nature's spontaneity in gardens that makes it so tough to work with natives exclusively. Since I need to punch up the excitement to feed my own aesthetic desires, I mix in nonnatives too... in the end, it's more their suitability to the site, not their place of origin, that determines whether they will be successful or not.

Why is it that I can condense those thoughts into a paragraph after reading a few thoughtful comments, but otherwise the art of writing in a concise manner eludes me entirely?!?!?!! Argh. :)

layanee, thank you. Many of those natives--especially the grasses--look so nice year-round and dead seedheads add interest to the winter garden, too. It's probably no wonder that they endear themselves to us, is it?!

Annie, I can't believe that I completely forgot about the inland sea oats... I have some of those, too, and I love the way they look like a beautiful combination of bamboo and wheat! I'm trying to resist going through an ornamental grass phase myself, truth be told. I haven't been able to resist 'Morning Light' miscanthus or the new short version of zebra grass whose cultivar name escapes me, though.

Bill, I'm like you. I love seeing the native plants around here, but I wouldn't want to do without some of my nonnatives, either. That's a good point about Texas, too--it's so big, with so many different growing areas. Ohio is similar, actually... we have hilly lands in the south and flat lands in the north where the glaciers smoothed out the bumps so long ago. Lake Erie does interesting things in the east, and the long-gone native swamplands still affect life in the west. Such diversity we both enjoy in our home states. :)

ottawa gardener, I will see what I can do about those wide angle shots. If you do move to the country and try designing with natives in the woodland, I hope that you continue to blog about that. I think it would be fantastically frustrating but fantastically rewarding, too... and absolutely fascinating for us to be able to follow along with. :)

gloria, great points re: gardeners affecting the changes and distributions that have been going on for eons anyway, just maybe on a larger scale/shorter curve thanks to the ability to have plants delievered right to your door from the other side of the country.

yolanda elizabet, it's so funny that you mention Piet Oudolf! Reading "Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space" by Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury really helped me to clarify some of my thoughts on natives. :)

wildlife gardener, thank you for the compliment! It is kind of funny, but here many of the plants that feed the local wildlife (my neighbor's blackberry-eating kids not included, lol) are the nonnatives. I find more caterpillars on my bronze fennel than on my native butterfly weed, and more bees on my salvia nemerosa cultivars than on my echinacea. I always kind of wonder why...

chicksey, thanks for stopping by! Like you, I have a little bit of environmentalist in me and I know what you mean about it being confusing. I think that it's one of those things where we have to just keep doing the best we know to do... that seems to have become my approach to a lot of grey areas. :)

entangled, ramble on here whenever you want! (I'm totally serious--please do.) I have thought about what you mention re: woody succession as well when considering the native prairie grasses. And given that many of the prairies stay prairie as a result of a burn that gets rid of the larger shrubs and first generation trees... would that mean to have a "real" prairie, you would have to do a controlled burn every now and again instead of just a short mowing? And if you do that, would the local invasives (like garlic mustard, here) just take over the place? Hmm. I wonder where we could find answers for these things...

Me, your husband may think you're crazy but I think that's way cool! I can't wait to see pics. I'm with you on creating beds a la the lasagna method, by the way. So easy, and so nice to work with afterward. I do all of my beds that way--unless they are being created on a whim, I admit.

wayne, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I'm a big fan of moderation, I admit... sometimes it's frustrating, soemtimes I think it's a cop-out, but most of the time I am glad that I can see shades of gray.

I definitely hope you rethink that fear of grasses. :)

Kris, whoa... Kobie eats ornamental grasses?! OUCH! (I'm imagining a dog chowing down on those sharp blades of miscanthus that give me papercuts here.) You're so right about the fall color and beauty of grasses. I hadn't mentioned that, but the seasonality is one of the definite plusses.

lisa said...

Nice post! I need t get little bluestem...already have big bluestem, so why not have the whole set? ;-)

Unknown said...

Lisa, really? I keep thinking that big bluestem is too big for my garden... care to (show pictures and) convince me otherwise? It's such a beautiful grass.

chuck b. said...

Ever try posting a comment and just giving up because the comment won't gel? I've been thinking a lot about this post, and I've decided I'll have to blog my response. And I owe you some pictures of my tripled pairs. (I will get to all of this soon, and let you know when it's ready, just wanted to share an FYI.)

Anonymous said...

There is another native grass that you might want to try - Prairie Dropseed (Sporabolus). I grow that in front of little bluestem. The Sporabolus makes a nice fountainy contrast with the more upright bluestem, & it turns a nice golden to complement the red. Dropseed makes a nice edger, a period punctuation to a border exposition. At the Du Page County Courthouse in Wheaton, IL, Dropseed is used massed to great effect.
Mr. McGregor's Daughter
The Land Beyond O'Hare

Unknown said...

chuck b., I look forward to reading that post... and seeing the pictures of your "twos" as well.

And I do know what you mean... I have had the same experience trying to leave a comment for the County Clerk about hydrangeas.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter, I have actually looked at the sporabolus heterolepis as well--nice winter color, and I love the weeping look to the blades. If the city does what I think they might this fall (cut down the entire treelawn tree in front of my house) it's going in. I'll mass plant it in place of the "lawn" in my front yard because then it will have enough sun.

Off to google the courthouse you mentioned--I hope I can find some pictures of the dropseed there. Thanks! (And do you have a blog, too? Don't hesitate to leave it in the comments so I can find yours back...)

Digital Flower Pictures said...

I think you have a good philosophy about the native issue. I don't think about it too much but I have become concerned with invasive/non-invasive plants. Both are important issues and something to think about.

On the invasive side of things I see you have the Eupatorium I have come to dread so much. I would like to warn you that this plant is the most vicious seeder I have ever seen. I have 2 gardens that have been completely over run by this plant. The seed drifts very far and germinates almost anywhere. I would at least recommend deadheading it and putting the heads in a plastic bag right after flowering.

Robin (Bumblebee) said...

Perhaps I am too tired. But your tiny garden is sure starting to look large to me!

--Robin (Bumblebee)

Unknown said...

digital flower pictures, thank you for the comments on that eupatorium. I keep seeing different reports--some say it's a crazy reseeder and some say they never have trouble with it. So I am going to give it a try and see what it does here... and will probably also follow your advice about keeping it deadheaded. I have to walk past it daily to get to my car, so that shouldn't be too hard to do.

robin, maybe it's this heat wave?! lol. If not, then it must be the photography. I can't capture the glow right, but maybe I can make .11 acres look larger than it is in picture form. *grin*

Ki said...

I find that ornamental grasses are difficult to place in a landscape. Some thrive but we've managed to kill a blue fescue and some other kind of spiny grass. The Japanese bloodgrass is relegated to a out of the way place and the more successful ones dot the pond surround. I do like the Hakonechloa 'All Gold' but again it seems miscast in a bed of perennials and shrubs. Somehow the shape of all those skinny stems make grasses an alien amongst mostly rounded forms. Probably just my prejudice. I did buy some small bamboo sasa type grass which suits me better with the wider variegated leaves.

I think it would be very difficult to just grow natives. I love variety too much.

lisa said...

I will absolutely do a post w/pics of big bluestem....flower heads are forming right now, as a matter of fact!

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