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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA


These deer-resistant plants are perfect for fall & winter interest

by Carolyn Singer
October 10, 2009

One of my favorite native plants for landscaping is basket or deer grass, Muhlenbergia rigens.Growing freely by roadsides in our dry foothills, this graceful ornamental grass is a beautiful addition to the garden too. Mixed with California poppies (it's time to sow those seeds in the next few weeks!), this clumping grass catches the slightest breeze.Muhlenbergia rigens with CA poppy

Ornamental grasses add two elements to the garden often difficult to achieve with other plants: light and motion. There is, of course, a texture and form unique to each grass, as there is to any plant. Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'Some grasses also add the element of light, capturing the sun from dawn until dusk. It may be the leaves, or the bloom (influorescence), or both together that brighten the landscape as they glow. Grasses may also add movement with the wind, or the illusion of motion with their form.Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'

Clumping grasses are good choices for a mixed border. They do not spread aggressively with stolons. However, they may spread seed, resulting in lots of self-sown volunteers. All the ornamental grasses are deer-resistant.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster') has grown much larger in my garden than I ever expected. It is a clumping grass, and spreads occasionally by seed. My mature plant is five feet in height, and four feet in spread, with a graceful arching habit of the leaves. This is an ornamental grass that moves with the slightest breeze, and may even give the illusion of motion on a still day.

Plant the feather reed grass in partial shade in the foothills. A good exposure is strong morning light followed by some afternoon shade. If you can find a spot in your garden where it can capture a bit of the late afternoon light too, you will be rewarded with glowing influorescences. Enrich the soil with organic compost and an organic source of phosphorus and oyster shell. Deep summer irrigation once every two weeks is sufficient when plants are mulched.

A related clumping grass, Calamagrostis brachytricha, is my favorite of the reed grasses, though it needs more water and is often difficult to find in the nursery trade. I found it recently at Lotus Valley Nursery (626-7021), a small nursery and garden near Placerville specializing in ornamental grasses.

This reed grass' very arching, bright-green leaves add beautiful form and texture to the landscape. A delicate grass, it has exquisite coloring of purple and light-green to the influorescences as they open slowly in late summer into fall. Fall-blooming reed grass prefers shade in the foothills. Dappled sunlight under deciduous trees in the morning, with full afternoon shade is the best exposure. Mature size, and soil and water requirements are the same as for 'Karl Foerster'. Sadly, this grass has not self-sown in my garden.

Little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grows wild on the American prairie. There it must self-sow, though it has not done so for me. With upright, clumping habit in spring and early summer, this tidy grass is a beautiful addition to the flower border. As the grass begins to flower, habit changes to arching. Mature height is about two feet, with a spread in bloom of two to three feet. Soil and water requirements are similar to the Calamagrostis species.

Little blue stem is a grass for full sun or very light shade, and moderate water in summer. Blue-green leaves transition to apricot and purple in the fall, and small, fluffy seed heads add textural interest that captures light. The exquisite fall coloring inspired my planting this grass adjacent to a garden gate that leads to the vegetable garden. Plants are commonly available in local nurseries.

One more ornamental grasses for shade or partial shade is spangle grass, or wild sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Chasmanthium latifolium This grass may also be grown in full sun, but it will require more water. In my shade garden, it is growing in competition with tree roots, and grows beautifully with the irrigation once week in the heat of the summer. Similar to a bamboo in appearance, spangle grass is a clumping grass but may spread rather aggressively by seed. The narrow leaves on slender stems capture light all day, and movement with a soft breeze brings that light to life.

Spangle grass has a very long season of bloom interest, beginning in summer. By autumn, seedheads have delicate coloration of buff and pale-rust, inviting close-up inspection. And that's just what we should be doing on a warm fall day: pausing to appreciate the beauty of nature.
Muhlenbergia rigens

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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