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Ornamental Grasses

Changing Attitudes

It has only been in the last few decades that any grasses, other than turf and Pampas Grass, were used in ornamental landscapes. Certainly, native grasses were not considered or appreciated as they are today! 

pampas grass at fast food restaurant Pampas Grass clumps grow to huge, tropical-looking tufts. It was often used as a focal point, surrounded by seating, or to flank entrances in the southeast. Pampas grass is native to South America. It fit perfectly with Victorian designs. It was exotic, dramatic plant material from a far-away place. It is also called Sawgrass, with a reputation for ripping through skin with jagged cuts if you are unfortunate enough to run your hands along the graceful blades. For this reason, it is a nightmare to maintain. The thick clumps grow to heights over ten feet tall. The clumps can get ragged, containing both new blades and the old, dried-out blades from years past.

The best method of rejuvenating a clump of Pampas Grass is to bind the entire plant with a bungee cord and use a chain saw to cut through the tough stems in late winter. Only female plants carry attractive plumes, so it is important to choose container material of Pampas Grass when it is in bloom to ensure worthwhile specimens.

I grew Pampas Grass at a former home, but never again. It is not practical for residential landscapes. Pampas Grass was typically used only on large properties with paid maintenance crews to deal with the challenging pruning requirements or by unsuspecting homeowners that learned the hard way to avoid it. 

Botanical Gardens vs. the Rest of Us

Practical Shrubbery

botanical garden secrets

I just visited the homes of two shut-ins to deliver flowers. There were similar things I noticed at each house. I had to practically climb around overgrown shrubbery to get to the door. There were weeds protruding from cracks in the pavement. Foliage obscured all the windows. There was a noticeable difference between the landscapes of the shut-ins and the other houses nearby. For shut-ins it is impractical to match the level of maintenance required to keep up a yard, without lots of help from others.

The same issues apply to us when we compare the quality of our residential landscape and the horticultural displays at a botanical garden. For us, it is impractical to match the level of maintenance required for professionally landscaped gardens. Botanical gardens not only have tons more people helping maintain their properties, their people are all trained in horticulture. What can be done to match that quality without breaking the bank? Don’t despair. Your landscape can rival those of the professionals. I’ll share a few trade secrets with you. 


planters, container plantsPlanters need to be big—really big. A common mistake designers make with planters is choosing small sizes. You’ll lose plant material in small containers.  “Self-watering” planters are a joke. Planters need people to keep the plant in them alive.

Raised planters within streetscapes need to be located beyond the overhang of vehicles. If not, they need to be less than fifteen inches tall to avoid damage from the bumpers. 

If trees are planted in narrow, raised planters, they tend to be unstable. I’ve seen elaborate urban landscaped medians trying to do this. The trees eventually had to be removed when they started leaning. It looked great for just a few months, but was certainly not worth the cost.

When designing plants in a planter, try to include things that flow over the sides of the planter. It’s pretty. Add tall, bold focal points. One way to get vertical height in the difficult environment of a planter is to use tall ornamental grasses. They can be very dramatic.

Plan on replacing the plant material in a planter often. It is not a natural situation for plant material. The reflected heat on the sides of planters dries out the root system and the reflected heat from the planter material is harsh. The soil dries out very quickly and can require supplemental waterings as often as three times a day during the hottest days of summer.

Well-maintained planters can be very effective in retail shopping areas, where pedestrians can view their beauty at eye level. They are a hassle, but worth it. They make people want to spend money. They also provide a connection for people with nature and beauty. In urban areas, it may be the only vegetation some people see during the day.


irrigation design basicsIrrigation is not an essential part of a landscape. You don’t have to irrigate a landscape. Your good plant choices and proper timing for planting will help the plants do alright without irrigation. Irrigation is for landscapes where you want a higher level of quality. Plants love having a reliable source of water. The amount of irrigation you need is dependent on what level of plant quality you are willing to accept.

Compromise is an important word for irrigation design. A perfect design provides even, head-to-head coverage. Good irrigation design, though, reduces that coverage by omitting heads in low-moisture requirement zones like mulched beds under trees and along the edges of buildings.  Check your design to see if there are ribbons of landscape that can make do with a row of heads on only one side. Narrow strips of land between a sidewalk and a curb can be planted in a drought-tolerant grass and may need no irrigation at all. On steep slopes, consider running a line of heads at the top of the hill and allow the water to run down the slope. This can provide adequate coverage all the way to the bottom. Adequate is acceptable in many circumstances. Consolidate high-moisture requiring plants and irrigate only what has high needs.

You need to design with compromises because some zones in the landscape are difficult to access or the plant material is not worth the extra cost. On public projects, irrigation may not be allowed. The budget may be limited. Irrigation systems deteriorate. Without regular maintenance, an irrigation system might last only a couple of years before leaking and damage cause it to be turned off permanently. Your

Good Pruning Requires An Aesthetic Reference for Quality

Being Raised Right

This is what the tree looked like before.

pruning mistakes

















This is what it looked like after it was pruned.

pruning mistakes

Some people might say, “There’s no accounting for taste.” I don’t agree. This obvious pruning tragedy was a result of a missing aesthetic reference for quality. If you were never taught what is beautiful, you won’t be able to recognize beauty or appreciate it enough to preserve it.

Contractors can be taught. A maintenance work plan must be specific about how work should be accomplished. It must be specific about the consequences of non-compliance, and who will be responsible for monitoring the work. Follow through with punitive fees for not following clear maintenance specifications.

High quality maintenance pruning is something that comes naturally for some people, but others need to be taught. Crews can be taught by trained supervisors. Field trips to see both good and bad examples of pruning can help. You cannot assume that everyone working on your landscape project will be sensitive to natural forms and artistic shapes. 

Free Plants Every Spring

A New Year with New Beginnings

free plants every springWe’ve been having a warm spell this February, and I am encouraged by the new sprouts emerging from the garden cloche cuttings I stuck in the ground last fall. I buried some stems of my favorite shrubs as deeply as possible into moist soil and covered them with large upside-down jars for the winter. To hedge my bets, I surrounded the glass jars with bubble wrap to keep the stems extra warm and toasty. Then I pulled pine straw around the bottom to keep out cold winds. When the weather warms in the spring, I pull off the jars and, voila! New plants.

free plants every springIt’s easy to build a collection of garden cloche jars. The traditional bell jars are quite expensive, but I visit thrift stores and yards sales for fifty-cent versions. Old floral containers work just fine. The handy handle topper is missing, but I can manage without it. The bigger the jars, the better.

The jars act like tiny greenhouses, holding in moisture and sunlight and warmth. Some shrub species accept this propagation method very willingly—Hydrangeas and Roses, especially. Can you have too many Hydrangeas and Roses? I don’t think so!

Amazing Shrub for Heavy Shade

Aucuba is Not Perfect, but Nobody’s Perfect

shrub for heavy shade, shade plant, shade plantsAucuba can be grown from hardiness Zones 7a to 9B. The people who live in those zones, south of the Mason-Dixon line and along the coastal perimeter of the U.S., either love it or hate it. I’ve seen it sold as a houseplant, probably because of its glossy, leathery, colorful leaves. I love it.

I’ve never noticed the flowers, and the large red fruits are only on female plants, rarely available in bread-and-butter nurseries. Most cultivars grow about four feet tall. The red berries clash with the variegated leaves, but they look striking on the all-green cultivars. The leaves are amazing. The greens are deep and dark and the variegated varieties have screaming blobs of chartreuse and yellow.

There are a few reasons people hate it. A lot of southerners remember their mothers or grandmothers using ‘Gold Dust’ in flower arrangements, rooting the ugly, thick stems in water on a sunny windowsill, and giving it away to friends. It was very popular in the sixties, but people are tired of it now. I’m not. Shrubs go in and out of fashion, and this one has not seen the “old is new again” stage in the nursery industry. Maybe five years from now.

When it gets diseased, it looks like something out of a horror flick. Stems and entire branches go completely black—black, mind you—if they contract one of the rots that attack it in poorly drained, nematode-infested soil. Other manifestations of their problems include necrosis, fungal growth, wilting, and necrotic spotting. Just the names sound disgusting!

If you plant it slightly above grade in good soil, keep mulch away from the roots, and cut out problem branches back to healthy tissue with clean clippers, the problems go away. Those fixes are quick and easy and don’t involve chemicals. Anything that doesn’t involve regular spraying is okay by me.

February—Time to Prune

Winter Prune before the Forsythias Bloom

dormant winter pruningThere will be a glorious false spring sometime after Christmas and before Valentine’s Day, each year if you are lucky. When it comes, get out there and prune away! Dormant winter pruning should be done after woody plants have gone completely dormant and before new buds begin to swell.

When major pruning of broadleaf evergreen shrubs is required, sometimes it is easier to shear first (as in the photo above) and then selectively remove the remaining limbs as needed, using the deep cut hand-pruning method. For commercial properties, severe shearing of no more than one-third of the branch tips in winter can be a good way to keep low parking lot hedges low, allowing visual scanning of the property for safety.

Prune Junipers to keep them dense by lifting each long limb individually and cutting back to some remaining green growth. Any more, and you will end up with nothing but a bare stump.

Of course, you need to wait to prune most flowering shrubs until after they bloom, unless you are trying to rejuvenate the entire shrub and can do without blooms for the year.  It is tempting to prune everything while shears are in hand, but resist the temptation. Plants with pithy centers or hollow stems will suffer as late winter rains might rot the stumps.

It is probably not a good idea to prune if you expect a severe cold snap right away. It takes some plants, especially small fruit trees, a while to re-acclimate to cold after major pruning. The exposure of moist, fresh stumps that haven’t hardened off for a few days could do harm to the plants.

Plan on a nice warm spell sometime in late January or early February, and keep your clippers sharpened and ready!

Looking for the Best Winter Blooms?

Nothing Beats Pieris for Cold Weather Flowers

winter flowers, winter landscape, winter bloomsOne of my favorite plants shines when all the others are dormant—Pieris. It is also called Andromeda, but Pieris is easier to say. It has some wonderful features. It is evergreen with beautiful, shiny leaves. It is tall and narrow, but not too tall—one of the few plants that actually fits long-term in the tight places near entrance steps, flanking doorways, without spilling out on to the sidewalk and blocking the way. In early spring the new foliage is bright red. In fall, the flower buds are crimson. Not only that, this polite little plant blooms its heart out with large clusters of pinkish white bells in January!

The Callaway Gardens Vegetable Garden

The Victory Garden is Defeated

victory garden south, callaway vegetable gardenIt was sad to see the recent closing of one of the greatest gardening displays in the United States. The Callaway Gardens Vegetable Garden showcase is no more, as a result of shifting priorities away from horticulture. There were not enough visitors. This wonderful gardens simply could not last during the repeated recessions of the last couple of decades. The venue displayed home gardening on a grand scale.