Thoughts From The Belly - February 2005
Thoughts From The Bellysize=+2>
By: Dan Mays Â Ironbelly1@aol.com
During the winter, I like to appraise my gardens and think about how and what I can improve. Every year I incorporate a number of experiments throughout my beds to try out new ideas, new plants, old plants I have never grown and recommendations that I think are questionable or offer potential promise. This post-New YearÂs period, I have been assessing the results from experiments recently conducted in my shade gardens. While some of these experiments need several years to fully come to fruition, there are always some observations that show merit from the onset.
One thing that is true in almost any type of garden is the need for more height. We find ourselves standing in our gardens looking down at our collection of plants and wondering, "WhatÂs missing?" In most cases, the biggest part missing starts at about 18-24 inches Â there is nothing above that level. Although my shade garden is only one year-old, it became abundantly clear after the first frost that more height was needed. I do have some young shrubs (azalea, rhododendron and oak leaf hydrangea) and a small Carolina Silver Bell tree that will add this dimension as they mature. However, I was really struck at how flattened the shade garden became once hit by a killing frost. Within the span of only a few hours, tall, leafy Hostas and their companions totally collapsed and looked like Kleenex thrown onto the ground and sprayed with a water hose.
There were some experiments in my shade garden that thoroughly impressed me, however. As part of my personal campaign to rid my gardens of "plant wimps" which demand extra care, I have been experimenting with underused and overlooked, native plants of merit. There are very few grasses that will tolerate shade. However, if you visit any of our local woodland areas in the early fall, you are likely to encounter a remarkable shade tolerant grass typically found growing sparsely, near the edges and openings of the woodland. Standing at about three feet tall and looking like a brush to scrub out baby bottles is the intriguing Hystrix patula, commonly known as "Bottle Brush Grass". I planted a small massing of this native oddity and have been quite impressed with its performance thus far in my shade garden. Especially impressive was its non-demanding nature and its ability to withstand dry, shady conditions while continuing to always look good.
"Hystrix" in Greek, means hedgehog (porcupine) in reference to the supposed resemblance of the seed head bristles to the hedgehog quills and "patula" refers to being spread out or open wide. Not coincidentally, this describes the distinguishing seedhead of this grass. The tall seedheads have remained erect, well into the winter and have given considerably more winter interest that most other shade plants could ever hope to provide. Additionally, a desirably taller element has now assumed a needed presence in my shade garden.
Many delightful shade plants such as Hepatica, Trillium, Virginia Bluebells, Trout Lilies, etc. are festooned with glory in the early portion of the growing season. Of course, Hostas and so many other stalwart shade plants fill out the remainder of the summer. However, there is not too much new happening in the shade garden when entering the fall season. In my mind, this is one of the finest assets of design that Bottle Brush Grass can contribute. The fanciful seed heads begin appearing; capturing newfound interest after everything else has reached status quo. Preceding the appearance of the seedheads, the wonderful foliage of the grass culms has been providing a tall, spiky texture usually lacking in most shade gardens.
Although I will keep this plant under close watch another year or two for any unobserved liabilities, this plant looks to be a winner. A native grass that provides height, texture, attention grabbing seedheads and late season interest continuing through the winter Â in a shade garden, no less Â certainly captures my consideration.