Plant of the Week

Sorghastrum nutans “Blue Steel”

Sorghastrum nutans, or Indian Grass, as it is commonly referred to, is one of the dominant tall grass species of the American Prairie, with a range that extends up into Minnesota and down and across to the Southwest. It comes in a variety of cultivars (Blue Steel, and Sioux Blue to name a few), but even the native variety looks at home in the most modern of landscapes. Often overlooked in nurseries for not being standalone and showy enough, this grass deserves a doubletake. It offers a bolt of upright, metallic blue color that contrasts well with the greener foliage of your landscape, and in late summer, little can be more beautiful than the flush of its golden panicles backlit in the afternoon sun.

Indian Grass is a warm season grass, with an accent on warm; it is late to come up in spring and will wait to display its panicles until the waning heat of late summer. As such, it is best placed in the center of a larger landscape or towards the back of a shallow one – particularly because it can reach over five feet high when its panicles emerge. True to PRAIRIEFORM botanical taste, it is tough as nails and can survive on remarkably little water, and can grow even in clay-heavy soil. Indian Grass loves sun and lots of it, and this is somewhat of a hard-and-fast rule, so don’t try planting it in part-sun or it will tend to flop over. On the topic of flopping over, less water = more upright, so err on the side of caution and don’t overwater your Indian Grass, otherwise you’ll have a stake job on your hands. As always, cut the grass back to about an inch above the ground in spring.

The shrub as the unsung landscape hero

Shepherdia argentea

PRAIRIEFORM perenially views landscape design as problem-solving; the components of a landscape are but pieces of a larger, spatial-botanical puzzle. This is, however, generally not how landscape is viewed. The conventional approach is to construct a landscape from disparate pieces, moving from these pieces towards a vague idea of a whole. As a result, the tendency is to gravitate towards deemed “show-stopper” perennials and to ignore the somewhat less glamorous but equally crucial building blocks of the landscape.

Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’

The shrub is one such overlooked component. While many a shrub has been played out to the point where someone simply needs to issue an early-retirement notice (i.e. Yews, Arbor vitae, Juniper and all of those other static and itchy ’50s-era shrubs), there exists a wide wide world out there of shrubs of varying colors, textures, and forms that can do wonders for the overall structure of a landscape. For maximum effect – and to avoid the depressing topiary-shrub-hugging-house motif – their placement should be considered within the larger context of the landscape, and mixed in with a host of plants of various heights and forms. In this way, you will be able to begin buidling a true landscape composition, whose form, foliage, and texture will endure across the seasons and through the years.

The Plan and the State

Chicago’s Cabrini Green, on its last breath

An ongoing question PRAIRIEFORM has been examining is what role the institution of planning can and should play in shaping our modern city (see post on the Los Angeles Fashion District). Witold Rybczynski offers up food for thought in suggesting that planning should take a bit of a back seat, or at least stop dreaming of returning to its heydey of urban renewal and sweeping control over the physical form of our cities. The essay has generated quite a bit of furor. See what you think, ponder, discuss.