Everyday excursions in the urban landscape

An unfloppable bluestem

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little bluestem jazz, prairieform, landscape design, drought-tolerant, grasses

For the landscape work we do in Minneapolis we work within a very limited, cold-weather-mandated plant palatte. Limitations placed on creative work should be seen as opportunities to push envelopes and tackle challenges, not as limitations in and of themselves. In any case, when a new plant does come along that can survive a Minnesota winter and look good in spite of whatever other weather curveball might be thrown at it, we do do a proverbial dance and say, “Hot,” or something like that. So, we’re doing that now, as there’s a new plant to add to the Zone-4-hardy, drought-tolerant-but-not-depressing arsenal of groovy MN-friendly plants. It’s called Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Jazz’ / little bluestem ‘Jazz.’ We love little bluestem for its mid-height vertical featheriness, and its lovely color transformation from fresh green in early summer to blue-green, to red-tinged, to bronze. Our only complaint other than that it does come up late (which is unavoidable as a warm-season grass), is that it has a tendency to flop over later in the year and can get taller than you might want. Enter ‘Jazz,’ a variety that will only grow to 2′ and will not flop over, even as the growing season progresses. Sounds like even a good choice for the front of the border or just behind it. We shall be using it with gusto this year.

The other fall foliage

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It’s relatively obvious from our posts that we are sizable fans of ornamental grasses. Part of it is for the muscle they can add to an otherwise too-perennial-heavy landscape, and part of it is for the year-round interest they can provide. Save the short month they disappear when when cut back to the ground in spring, they are pretty much a constant presence in the landscape, including in fall and winter. This is all too important when that flush of summer color fades and the landscape begins to go to sleep; other, muted colors, forms, and shapes need to take the place of green and carry the lansdcape into spring. Our reliable faves include Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ / Karl Foerster feather reed grass, Koeleria macrantha / June Grass, and Schizachyrium scoparium ‘blaze’ / Blaze little bluestem. Be sure and mix cool- and warm-season grasses into your landscape so that you get that early flush of green from the cool ones while the warm ones still sleep.

PRAIRIEFORM on the Fine Gardening site

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PRAIRIEFORM landscape featured on the Fine Gardening site

Fine Gardening magazine is currently featuring small-scale residential gardens and landscapes around the country on their blog – and they’ve chosen one of ours for one of their daily slots! You can check out the photos and the project description on their site here. Many thanks to Associate Editor Michelle Gervais for selecting us. Enjoy.

The occasional value of tried but true

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Karl Foerster and Overdam grasses backlit in the morning light

Some of the most ubiquitous plants in the American landscape have been used ad nauseum simply out of convention, good marketing, and/or reluctance on the part of the everyday joe to try something different (we won’t name names of plants so as not to offend, and because, yes, to each one’s own). They may be as dull as can be, but people continue to use them endlessly. In any case, certain of these ubiquitous plants are ubiquitous precisely because they are intensely reliable and provide much in the way of visual flare across the seasons. We’ve come full circle with two of them: Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass) and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’ (‘Overdam’ feather reed grass). Initially bored by seeing them everywhere, we have learned to embrace their wonder and reliability. They come up early, offer a fresh shot of color to the landscape; they grow up, send out their seed heads in June, and by July you have both vertical structure and the visual effect of a tidy meadow in the landscape. Their color fades to tawny golds and tans in fall, and their structure holds up once the snow begins to fall. Tried but true, yes, but lovely all the same.

Of grasses and gardeners

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Pennisetum rubrum (purple fountain grass) hedged to look like a. . . hedge (but looking like a hot mess)

We’ve just returned from Palm Springs, where we had a chance to soak in some good old-fashioned rays, and check out some fantastic and not-so-fantastic desert landscapes. A recurring theme amongst the landscapes there was the introduction of ornamental grasses, which is a fantastic endeavor. Pink muhly, deer grass, and pennisetums abounded. Unfortunately, it was apparent that not one of the gardeners maintaining these grassy landscapes knew how to care for the grasses; most of the grasses we saw had been hacked back to unsightly buns, pillars, and scrappy mounds, in a vain attempt to tope them out. Landscape design in Southern California is tricky, as most of the maintenance is done by low-skilled gardeners who are underpaid and overworked. In any case, much time and money could be saved if the gardeners were provided a quick and dirty lesson in ornamental grass maintenance, which is that you leave them alone, save a solid chop to the ground in fall. We as designers need to somehow forge better communication ties between us and those who will maintain the landscapes we design, otherwise we’ll just end up with sad-looking grassy buns and ratty pillars.

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