Last week I taught a course on garden and planting design at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. It was good for me to go back and re-learn all of the elements of design and how garden design has evolved over the ages. By preparing for this class, I began to see how modern designers such as Piet Oudolf experiment with what I will call “fusion design” to make their gardens successful and approachable.
What Oudolf does is that he takes elements of classical design (balance, symmetry, and proportion) and then softens the rigid lines with lush plantings. The plantings sometimes flow through the landscape like the raked gravel of a Japanese meditation garden. The wind causes taller perennials and grasses to sway which adds the element of movement to the landscape. I will go so far as to venture to say that many of his designs would not work without grasses and sedges. Of all of the grasses that we grow at CMBG, the one that has impressed me the most has been Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues.’ This fantastic grass known by the common name of “little bluestem” is native to the prairies of North America.
The Blues differs from the straight species because of the clumping, upright form of the flowers. The grass blades are gently arching to about 2′ in height by July. Then in August, the flowering spikes shoot out from the foliage to about 4′ in height. Planted en masse, this grass makes a strong statement with the upright form. When the wind blows, these grasses carry on the movement that you see in an Oudolf landscape design.
All Schizachyrium scoparium like full sun and well-drained soil. If they get too much shade or are too wet, they will flop or begin to thin out. In the fall, the grasses stay upright but change color to a light, wheat brown. The grass blades and flower stalks will stay upright until snow and ice bend them down to the grown. You can cut it back in early spring before the new foliage emerges from the base.
Are you growing little bluestem? If so, what do you think about it?
Images: oglesbytc.com, planterschoice.com, plantlust.com