Thoughts From The Belly - February 2005

ironbelly1January 19, 2005

Thoughts From The Bellysize=+2>

February 2005

By: Dan Mays

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  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  in a shade garden, no less  certainly captures my consideration.

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monarae_gw(z4 IOWA)

What a wonderful and timely article! I was just working on my landscaping for a shade area right out front of my house and was wondering about plants with some height for that area! I will look into this plant - thats for sure! I am very excited about this project, as we have been remodelling for 2 years. Now its time for "fun"! Get to start from scratch. A little overwhelming, but I am looking forward to it.

Thanks again!


    Bookmark   January 19, 2005 at 10:41AM
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Dan, it's like deja vu all over again! :)

I too have been looking at grasses to mix in with my hostas, but I've been entranced by the Japanese forrest grass, Hakonechloa. A wonderful gardener that happens to grow and sell daylily in North Liberty had some growing in and amongst her hosta and daylily and I fell totally in love with it. So, I've been scouring the net looking for it and I think I've finally found what I want. Of course, I might e-mail said daylily grower and beg her to sell me a chunk of hers. :) I love the texture of it. Now all I have to do is to see if it will grow under black walnut trees...

My husband has been interested in grasses for quite some time, so, now I guess I'll have to give it a more serious look. I've ordered a book on grasses called the Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses that was highly praised over in the Ornamental Grass forum. I can hardly wait!

Keep the articles coming, ok? :)

IA Z5a

    Bookmark   January 19, 2005 at 9:07PM
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I thought it might be helpful if I could show a photo of how this plant looks in a small massing. Sad to say; I don't have a good picture of my own. This is one of those unexpected delights that kind of snuck up on me and I just never got a photo taken. However, this shot is an accurate portrayal of how a grouping looks. Most of the other pictures of it on the web are just too scientific-looking. (See link below.) I would have included it within this posting but the image is a little large.


    Bookmark   January 22, 2005 at 10:12AM
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growlove(zone4 Ia.)

How impressive! Is this grass hardy in zone 4? I have cimicifuga in my shade gardens which adds height and is extremely hardy in our cold winters. Also like the Japanese anenome which blooms in late summmer. Even now as I look at the beds, the seed heads are standing tall in the bed. Mary

    Bookmark   January 22, 2005 at 2:21PM
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I also grow Hakonechloa. It is a nice grass that creates an entirely different effect. It sort of lays on its side creating the impression of flowing water. It is slow growing and said to be a bit tender for zone 5. I keep mine in a rather protected shade area and have had it for about 5 years. Patience will be required to get clumps as big as they look in the catalogs. However, it is worth the wait.

It should be fairly easy to find at most nurseries. However, the same might not be said about the Hystrix patula. I got mine mail order from Ion Exchange, which of course, specializes in native plants. There are quite a few online specialty sources for this native grass but one might have a tough time finding it at your local garden center. This is one of those plants that we are going to have to tell our local garden centers to start carrying.

I received my plants from Ion Exchange as plugs at about 70 cents a piece. Of course, there is a minimum number of plants (I want to say a whole flat of 70 plugs.) that you must order but you can mix and match different species to make up a flat. I was impressed with the way these little plants were delivered and how well all the different species grew. I'll be doing business with Ion Exchange again -- of course there are a LOT of good vendors out there.


    Bookmark   January 22, 2005 at 5:04PM
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Dan, which Hakonechloa do you grow? I think i'm mostly interested in the Hakonechloa macra Albo Striata. However, the golden one is very appealing, too. Aw, heck, I'll have one or two of each before it's over. :)

I think Ion Exchange was at the Eastern Iowa Garden and Landscape show in 2003. I don't know about last year, cause I was sick and it was pouring out and so with a double whammy I decided on going.

My husband is interested in Pampas Grass, but from what I read it's not hardy to our zone. So, what is the grass I see people calling Pampas Grass in our area? Thanks.

IA Z5a

    Bookmark   January 24, 2005 at 5:48PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

i am not in iowa but i am right next door. i ordered plants from Ion Exchange for the first time last year. i also visited their nursery one day last summer. i ordered some jacobs ladder, some new jersey tea and some button bushes from them... i really have to battle the rabbits for the tea... but so far they keep growing back.

have you tried northern sea oats (chasmanthium latifolium)? i have been thinking about adding that to some woodland edge plantings but i havent really seen it, except in pictures, so i have been hesitant to order it.

i did plant some bottlebrush grass in my shady raingarden. but my wierdo dogs kept eating the tops off, so they didnt grow very tall. i have been using cayenne pepper to discourage rabbits, and i may need to use it on the bottlebrush grass to keep the dogs off, if i ever want to see any growth on it.

i agree that height is often missing in shade beds. it makes sense to me, that plants that get less sunlight are probably less prone to big growth.

a nice tall plant that does grow well in shade is culver's root (veronicastrum virginicum). i have used that for height in my shade beds. the bumble bees really love it. the white spires of culver's root contrasts nicely with the dark purple of tall ironweed (vernonia altissima) which also tolerates quite a bit of shade. the two mixed look really neat at night too.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2005 at 1:59PM
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BackPorch(4b IA)

A few years ago I planted some Northern Sea Oats in full sun. I found that I was pulling out seedlings most of the summer. As tempting as it may be, don't allow those seedheads to stay on the grass, and to me, alot of the fun of grasses is their fall and winter sillouette. So it was a disappointment. Fortunately it died out this past winter so I wasn't forced to dig it out.

I have grown golden Japanese Forest Grass for over five years now, at least, here in zone 4 and it has been tough as nails for me. A few years ago when we had the coldest winter since 1978, most of my other grasses bit the dust, but this one was just fine.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2005 at 11:24PM
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BackPorch, Oooh oooh oooh, this is good to know about Hakone grass!!! :) Where did you get your Hakone grass? :) Is it truly a slow grower?

IA Z5a

    Bookmark   February 7, 2005 at 11:44AM
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BackPorch(4b IA)

TickerToo, Now that I've joined the forum I guess I better check in more often.

I think I got it from the local nursery. If you are ever in NW Iowa check out Del's and also Ferguson's nurseries. They're awesome!!

Slow grower? It takes a couple of years for a clump to fill out. I don't think it is any different from other grasses in that regard. I like the fact that I haven't had to do a thing to it since I planted it. It certainly isn't in any way invasive and looks great all season long. Three years ago I took some new growth from the edge and transplanted it elsewhere, now its a nice thick clump itself. Try it...You'll like it.

    Bookmark   February 17, 2005 at 11:25PM
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liked the bit about hostas looking like wet kleenex after frost. You are right! keep those fingers typing:)

I just read about someone else hating the self seeding nature of N. sea oats.

I'm keeping my eye out for some of the hakone grass too-
Love that bamboo-ish- watery- quality

    Bookmark   February 18, 2005 at 5:21PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

thanks for the input on the sea oats. i knew there was a reason why i kept putting that one off...

    Bookmark   February 21, 2005 at 8:29PM
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BackPorch, all the info you can give on Hakone grass is good to know!! I'm on the hunt for it this spring. Unfortunately, I've also finally found the daylily auction. Yeah, I know, I'm a bit slow on the draw. ;)

IA Z5a

    Bookmark   February 21, 2005 at 9:21PM
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