A blue-bottle tree echoes the fall plumes of a neighboring miscanthus

A blue-bottle tree echoes the fall plumes of a neighboring miscanthus

Sometimes it’s good to get your head out of your own garden and see if there is anything greener on the other side of the fence.  If you do so at this time of year, you will no doubt start to notice the not-so-humble tussocks of ornamental grasses that are flowering at their peak and announcing the end of the season with magnificent plumes and foliage. If you can’t claim any of these beauties in your own garden, we need to remedy this oversight.

It is fairly typical when starting a garden to forget about the grasses.  At first it’s all about the annuals.  We plant our petunias and our tomatoes and beam with pride.  A year or so later we might branch out with a few perennials, entranced by color, but surprisingly and ultimately disappointed with staying power.  When we’re feeling at the top of our game, we start mixing shrubs and speaking in tongues (Latin).  Roses, weigela, hydrangea and salix rub shoulders and give the garden the gravitas that it once lacked.  Perhaps we step it up a notch and add an evergreen daphne or camellia – but we can’t move up that green ladder without a grass or two.

Yes I know, most of us spend our lives pulling out grass by the handful.  Bermuda grass tops my list, followed by Johnsongrass, goosegrass, crabgrass and about fourteen other species that make weeding a headache and banish all thoughts of planting something remotely similar anywhere near our precious borders and beds.  This is a mistake.  An ornamental grass adds texture and substance to most plantings – acting as a superb filler or an anchor where structure is desperately needed – sometimes topping out at ten feet or more.

Newly planted M. sinensis ‘Cosmopolitan’ brightening up a Manhattan Euonymus

This year I have added one of my favorites to my sunny border, Miscanthus sinensis “Cosmopolitan” – a tall, stunning cultivar with wide creamy margins.  Miscanthus species are some of the most beautiful of the ornamental grasses, growing in a fine range of variegated and non-variegated colors and widths, and tipped with panicles of bronzes and pinks as autumn takes hold of the summer garden.

For a long time, “Zebrinus” was queen of this group, popularized by Gertrude Jekyll at the turn of the century.  Sporting bands of yellow transversely across the leaf, it brought pop and sparkle into the mixed border, and still does – though now there are many improved cultivars in the banded group, such as “Strictus,” who doesn’t feel the need to throw her weight around as much as her older sister.

My Cosmopolitan will not share her space easily.  When she attains her final form, she must battle with a Limelight hydrangea and a Southern Gentleman ilex; but the heads of the Limelight will pick out the creaminess of her margins and the upright Southern Gentleman will complement her curves – just as any southern gentleman worth his upbringing should do.

Friends have reported great happiness with M. sinensis “Morning Light,” though if you insist on doing all your plant shopping at the big boxes, you will have to settle for “Variegatus” instead.

Elsewhere in the garden,  Cortaderia selloana is making a statement at the bend in a curving pathway – let’s hope it’s the right one.  In the United Kingdom, a clump of pampas grass in the garden is a not-so-subtle way of alerting the general public that there are couples swinging from the rafters inside the home.  Just in case that’s true in America, it found a home behind the house.

In some hot, dry climates, pampas grass can quickly become an invasive weed – and it’s not just something you easily “pull out” either.  A gorgeous specimen plant or a thug in the border…  choose your site carefully, this one’s a keeper.

And speaking of invasive weeds…if you ever happen to be at a plant swap and someone offers up some Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), think carefully before you grab them.  Yes, the flat, pinkish-grey seed heads are art in plant form.  Yes, it grows quickly.  Yes, it is rhizomatic.  Yes I will be paying for that particular weak moment for years to come.

I once saw three clumps beautifully displayed in a friend’s garden on a dry incline, with little competition from any neighbors (which tend to make it look a bit weedy), and now I am convinced that this should be a specimen plant – or at least should only be planted with others of its kind.  Which, if I stop weeding, is precisely what will happen in my garden.

Berried Liriope muscari lines a path in my shade garden

There are of course bamboos, but that is a whole column in itself – and with space at a premium, I technically don’t have to mention ever-so-useful liriope or mondo grass, as they share more DNA with the asparagus on your plate than the miscanthus in your border.

The point is, it’s the next step.  Don’t be afraid to add a new texture to your summers, new structure to your winters, and new reasons to stand, stare and smile.