I write mostly about two different facets of what we call gardening; ornamental landscaping and vegetable gardening. Looking back on this year most of my musings have been about vegetable gardening. It was such a good spring it was hard not to proclaim that rare success… So. I indulged. This week I will try to make up for it.
Whenever I have the opportunity to talk with the general public nowadays, the general consensus among homeowners is that they want heat loving, drought tolerant, low maintenance landscaping. Even so, when I visit those same people at home what I still see (mostly) is the same old tired lawn focused, pruned trees and shrubs, and water dependent landscaping that was popularized by our parents after WWII.
In our particular part of Texoma most of us live in the Rolling Plains or the Western Cross Timbers. These two ecosystems meet along and in the drainage areas of the Little Wichita River, basically where the prairies begin to give way to hardwood forest. The post oaks, live oaks, cedar elms, and junipers mark where the regions meet. Anytime you live where two ecosystems collide you find greater diversity in all forms of Life. A good place to live if you enjoy Nature!
While we do enjoy our native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers we can observe the dominant species here and throughout the Great Plains are grasses. This would include some that would be ideal for lawn culture but today I want to focus on all of them. The big picture…
The reason these prairie grasses dominate our natural landscapes is because they are perfectly adapted to this region where droughts are common and typically offset by seasonal flooding. Other than cacti, you cannot find a more drought tolerant or heat loving set of plants. Furthermore, if you look out on a field of diverse native grasses you can easily see that the different species tend to grow uniformly to the same height and width. This uniform growth is something we have foolishly attempted to enforce on our common foundation evergreen shrubs… By constantly shearing them.
We have to prune those shrubs to keep them in bounds and this is called maintenance. One of the things we say we don’t want. I still own the house I grew up in. I was pruning those shrubs as a boy and here, 60 years later, I am still pruning or having to pay my crew to do it.
So ornamental grasses are a perfect choice for under windows, signage, or a place where you like the distant view and do not want to block that but still enhance it with something interesting.
In my book, “The Lazy Man’s Garden” I chose the example of little bluestem (schizachyrium scoparium). This grass is columnar, grows to about 30” tall and the foliage changes from light green, to silver blue (hence the name), to reddish purple, to russet tan in spring, summer, fall, winter respectively. It also has an appreciable seed phase (especially when backlit by the sun) in late summer. Why aren’t we using it in ornamental landscaping? Probably because it is so common, and we still have that desire for uncommon, unusual, and often ill-suited plants for landscaping.
I noticed last Saturday our Indian grass (sorgastum nutans) is putting off a good bloom. This one is one of the prettiest natives and not so common as little bluestem. Soon, we will see the various muhly grasses and (my particular favorite) bushy bluestems in bloom.
So, what kind of person goes out to shop plants in the heat of August? Well, I’d say one that is truly interested in heat loving, drought tolerant, low maintenance landscaping….Eh? When you get tired of pruning those ubiquitous standard issue evergreens let’s consider replacing them with native ornamental grasses. Stop pruning, use less water, and if you always wanted something that only gets 2’or 3’ tall to fit in that narrow strip of garden bed we can find the perfect fit amongst our native grasses.
The only grass that was used by our folks in the post WWII suburban landscape was pampas grass. It was supposed to be evergreen but, in our climate proved brown during dry summers or colder winters. The thing got huge and the leaves were razor sharp. I remember it as a good place to hide during our kid games of hide and seek. Nobody was going to stick an arm in there to look under the cascading foliage. Pampas grass (from Spain) was absolutely gorgeous when it was full of those big plumes. Still, we don’t sell so much of it anymore. There are many, many other choices that can be found here on the Plains or nearby. None are evergreen but still have their own beauty in winter color. Personally, I enjoy the winter phase of bushy bluestem (andropogon glomeratus) the most. Get you some… Come see us!!