Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardeners: Create Drama with Grasses; Local U-Pick Berry Farms

When I first saw the yard of the house we were lucky enough to buy nearly five years ago, I was aghast at not only the neglect, but also the choice of plants.

Oh sure, the lion’s head maple (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’) was/is lovely and the dwarf conifers fit the house style perfectly. It was the porcupine grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’) – huge clumps of it – that I just couldn’t understand.

This is a large grass whose foliage gets 5 to 6 feet tall, and boasts flower plumes that top out at about 8 feet. Huge. Dramatic. And the wrong look for the house. There is no denying, however, that Miscanthus has a few very attractive features: hardy (withstands cold winters), drought tolerant and it is quite striking.

When it came time to do some design work, make the yard my own, despite my not being enthusiastic about the porcupine grass, I felt compelled to use them somehow rather than just dig them up and toss into the compost bin. After much thought and consultation, I divided them and transplanted them to the side yard, staggering their line-up to camouflage the walkway and entrance to the back garden. It was such a great decision; their purpose there is perfect and I very much enjoy their spectacular beauty.

My luck ran out when I transplanted some interesting variegated grass from the front yard to the back and planted it in a curving, river-like pattern. I didn’t know exactly what the grass was, but it looked good, was drought tolerant and I needed something to fill a spot.

Big mistake. After much research, I discovered that it was a variety of ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea var. picta), a grass variety that is actually on the invasive weed list of several states. It did grow like a weed, especially in the newly amended soil with applications of regular water. It grew so well and so spectacularly that I whimsically “created” a caterpillar out of it, with red bowling balls for eyes, before I tore it out.  It was a lesson for me to be aware of what I’m planting and not be fooled by good looks. I’m still pulling sprouts

Mexican Feather Grass

From such a tenuous start, I’ve come to enjoy and incorporate many different ornamental grasses into my yard design. At the top of mexicanfeathergrassthe list is Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), a finely textured grass that you wouldn’t think would live through the winter.

It does, though, and adds movement to your landscape that you wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s about 18 inches tall and wide and moves at the slightest hint of a breeze; in the fall and winter the fierce winds whip it back and forth with great drama.

It’s drought tolerant, a feature that becomes more and more relevant these days, and needs little care. It does self-seed easily, however if planted in drifts you won’t mind if you end up with some volunteers.

Japanese Blood Grass

Another favorite of mine is Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica japanesebloodgrass‘Rubra’). Unbelievably, the flowering non-red variety of this grass is on the Federal Noxious Weed list for several southern states.

The red variety however does not grow as aggressively especially in cooler locations, and is so much more attractive. It is also drought tolerant – notice a theme here? – and needs no special care.

In the spring, it emerges green, by this time of year, it’s half-and-half and in another couple of months it will be a beautiful red top to bottom just in time for fall drama. I’ve planted it in several “rivers”; the morning and evening sun shining through it is spectacular.

When you’re looking to add texture, movement or drama to your landscape, consider planting some grasses. Just be sure to know what you’re planting.

Local U-Pick Farms

If you don’t have room in your own garden or rent a p-patch site to grow your own fruits and vegetables, going to the North Bend Farmers Market is probably the best way to get locally grown produce.

For a little day trip with the kids and another opportunity to support local farmers, check out the u-pick berry farms close by. Strawberries have been harvested, but raspberries are still available and blueberries are coming up, so call them or visit their websites for locations and hours.

[Acknowledgements. The author, Ann Acton, is a master gardener in the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. Extension programs and employment are available to all without discrimination. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local Extension office.]

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