Although my husband and I represent different generations, we have most things that matter in common. For instance he's no slouch when it comes to rock music, and I'm a pushover for old movies. But grass is another matter.
He's one of the pioneers who settled the unseeded reaches of suburbia. For much of his adult life, he thought grass meant rye, fescue or, if you were well off, Merion Blue. I'm a baby boomer; to me the word "grass" had a different connotation -- one I'd rather not get into.
Neither of us knew about the glamorous members of the grass family that are not grist for lawn mower manufacturers. I'm talking ornamental grasses that possess color and character and provide decorative elements for any garden such as Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola', the 2009 Perennial Plant of the Year. It grows slowly but steadily in zones 5 - 9 if you plant it in enriched, well-drained soil. It tolerates shade, and deer don't like it.
This Japanese native is as good as gold, which is its color. Hakonechloa's arching, green-striped blades grow 18 inches tall and wide. In autumn the golden foliage takes on tints of red and pink.
Our Hakonechloa glitters near a weeping Japanese maple and cascades over the bank of our koi pond.
When a soft breeze rustles, the plant sways like a hula dancer. It goes well with hostas, astilbes, lady's mantle, epimedium and dark-leafed heucheras.
Or try Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra', aka Japanese blood grass. I put it on my most-wanted list when I saw it curving through perennial beds at State University at Stony Brook, where I teach journalism. I was touring the school's gardens with Lynden Miller, the designer who created them. "Don't those grasses look wonderful," she said. It was an understatement.
I prefer grasses with graceful habits, like the many varieties of Miscanthus sinensis that make elegant backdrops for black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers and coreopsis.
And I'm fond of Pennisetum alopecuroides, with fluffy, arching plumes that suit its common name -- fountain grass. Combine it with Sedum 'Autumn Joy' or Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm.' Purple fountain grass -- an annual with burgundy blades that turn tawny after frost -- looks nice in pots.
So does fiber optic grass, Isolepis cernua. I get a charge out of the way this sedge, which is tipped with tiny white flowers, drips over a container's edge and creates the effect of fiber optic light strands. It really sparks conversations.
No matter what you think when you hear the word "grass," there's an ornamental variety for your garden. And you won't have to mow it.
What's your favorite ornamental grass?