Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

Last week we took a fairly detailed look at how to plant garlic. The temperature is still great for planting garlic and you can quite conceivably plant right up until the weather makes it too cold to consider. I’ve planted garlic through ice crusted soil in December and still had acceptable results so don’t panic if you haven’t had time to get it done yet. Don’t forget to mulch your beds nice and deep before the ground freezes and then stay tuned for updates next spring when it’s time to do a little more work in the garlic patch. Now it’s time to return to our previous thread of gardening for cutflowers/displays with special attention to plant materials that will be available in the autumn garden.

When selecting plants to grow and cut for display in the home, many gardeners tend to overlook grasses. While they don’t generally have the stunning colours of other cut flowers, grasses tend to offer their own special touch to ornamental displays. Grasses can actually be surprisingly colourful but where they truly excell is in the varieties of shapes and textures they offer. Grasses are also extremely long lasting additions to the dried flower arrangements which are often the focus of gardeners looking to bring some garden memories in for the winter.

One critical factor to consider when thinking about adding ornamental grasses to your garden is that some varieties can be quite invasive. Always do your homework first. If you are unsure, perhaps you’d be further ahead to start with an annual ornamental grass variety that won’t survive our northern winters. These grasses should still produce plenty of attractive seed heads which are what most often end up in displays. If you are dead set on growing ornamental grasses that are known to be potentially difficult to control, there are still a couple of options to make this doable. One option is to plant your prospective grass in an area that is physically isolated and within which any spread will be limited and contained. Another option is to keep your new grass in a large plastic pot which can be buried in the garden with a few centimeters of the pot’s rim sticking up above ground level. Since most grasses spread by stolons (creeping underground stems), this arrangement should keep things under control. Any stolons managing to stretch up over the pot’s rim can be easily pulled and dealt with.

Driving Ontario roads at this time of year you can often see an example of an ornamental grass gone bad. Phragmites (European common reed) are a stunningly beautiful grass that are in full and glorious seed in late summer and fall. They can most commonly be seen in the ditches alongside roads and look an awful lot like pampas grass. Many gardeners are duped by this beguiling beauty and transplant it to their home gardens with often troubling results. Interestingly, there is a native phragmite grass which is relatively benign and worth considering as a garden specimen. The Internet has some very good information on distinguishing between the two so I won’t go into any more detail here. Let me just say that the cutting of invasive phragmite seed heads for flower arrangements is a potentially bad idea as this can lead to the spread of seeds.

Adding ornamental grasses to your cutflower displays can be done in two ways. Many grasses have extremely colourful blades (leaves) and add a marvelous soft texture to a vase full of fresh flowers in water. The ornamental grass materials that you incorporate into your flower displays will invariably outlast any of the actual flowers. The other way to use ornamental grasses in displays is to cut the seed heads for use in dried flower arrangements which can last for years.

Grass inflorescences (seed heads) should be cut in their prime, before they begin to open and shed seeds. Learning to time this can take a little practice but as long as you are happy with how the plumes look when you cut them then all is well. Bundles of ten to fifteen stems can be wrapped with elastic bands and hung upside down in a warm dark and dry area to cure. During this process the seed heads have a tendency to continue maturing and will often twist and open to spread seeds. Giving them a thorough coating with a cheap aerosol hairspray when they are just dry will help keep everything held together. There are special flower sprays made for this but they are really just a more expensive option to arrive at the same result. Once your grass stems are fully cured they can be separated and mixed with other dried plant material such as silver dollars, Chinese lanterns and corkscrew willow for beautiful long lasting arrangements.

Next week we can take a look at specific grass varieties that should yield great results in the north.