Jan Johnsen needs no coaxing to sing the praises of plumes. Ornamental grasses are the go-to solution for the principal of Johnsen Landscape & Pool. “Not only are ornamental grasses deer resistant and low maintenance, they also add depth to the perennial border,” says Johnsen, who has been working in the field since the 1970s and currently specializes in high-end design and project management.
Author of several garden books, including her most recent idea-packed and inspirational accomplishment, Gardentopia (Countryman Press, 2019), Johnsen turns to grasses because they play well with other perennials. Their stoic drought tolerance renders them ideal for the rocky, sloping terrain typical of Westchester County, where they step into the fore after most perennials begin to fade. “Grasses are a great way to extend the season,” she says. Plus, they are a no-fuss solution for a challenging site. Even roadside hell strips and driveways can host a plume-spouting plant. “I cut them down in early winter to prevent snowplow damage,” she says.
An expert at composing scenes with depth and meaning, Johnsen turns to grasses for their textural interplay with bedfellows. And she can find a grass to fit almost any space. The trick lies in pairing a grass with its preferred conditions. Although most grasses worship the sun, there are exceptions. Here she matches her favorite plumes with a variety of tough situations.
Sufficiently noteworthy to hold your eye and serve as a statement, an ornamental grass is a far less expensive solution than statuary for a focal point in the garden. Johnsen suggests the graceful vase-shaped Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ as a subject worthy of look-at-me placement. With elegant silver variegated blades throughout late spring and summer, topped by feathery burgundy plumes in fall, it’s stunning. “If I had only one grass in my toolbox,” Johnsen says, “I would want it to be Morning Light.”
Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’, is perfectly capable of holding its own in a container as an accent plant. “With smoky rose-purple plumes, there is nothing like this fountain grass, especially when it’s backlit.” Or use a container to grow a tender, nonhardy grass like fiber optic grass (Isolepis cernua) to form a compact mop of green spikes tipped by dabs of yellow. “Alone in a container, it’s strikingly otherworldly.”
“When you want a mass of texture, try Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio,’” suggests Johnsen. Relatively compact at 4 feet and topped by white plumes come fall, the grass has a mass color effect like a carpet. When a breeze ruffles the feathery plumes, the scene becomes nature’s choreography.
There’s nothing like a sea of Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln,’ waving its fluffy, bunny tail plumes at your feet to cover ground in texture. Standing only 2 feet high, Hameln is sufficiently sturdy, dependable, and reliably hardy to fill space without gaps, Johnsen says.
Most grasses reach their zenith in fall, but not blue fescue. Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue,’ forms a tuft of electric blue blades that stand out. In early spring, it begins growth along with bulbs and continues the performance into the year.
Although most grasses require a sunny location to strut their stuff, hakonechloas are exceptional in a shady spot. Select the gold-hued blades of Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ and your garden will be lit. Not only is All Gold a bright ground cover, but the performance continues through winter. “The blades go flaxen but remain handsome,” says Johnsen.
“Not many grasses have won the Best Perennial designation,” Johnsen says, “but Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ took the prize in 2014.” With its blue-green vertical blades, this switch grass serves as a strong structural component in the landscape. Many grasses are drought tolerant, but Northwind is particularly durable in dry conditions.
Got a damp spot? Carex elata ‘Bowles Golden’ is Johnsen’s solution. “With taller leaves than most sedges, it holds that golden color all summer long. Not only does it tolerate shade, but you can even tuck it into a pond edge,” she says. “Blend it with hostas and OMG!”
Need a bolt-upright element that makes a strong stand-alone statement? Johnsen recommends Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster.’ “It remains as straight as a soldier with 5-foot rusty brown blades that stand tall throughout winter. Plus, it’s a great choice for Westchester’s clay soils,” she says.
You can’t beat the native little bluestem as a steadfast performer, even in poor soil. Best planted in groupings, this scaled-down version of the prairie grass that holds Midwestern soil intact forms short tuffets of blue blades. In fall, the newly introduced Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’ blushes bright orange to add yet another hue to the show.