Who says grass is boring?

To the casual observer, the winter months would seem like the “off season” for gardening and landscaping, when many shrubs (minus the evergreens, of course) just look like sticks, and perennials and annuals vanish back into the ground beneath a bed of fallen leaves.

To the rescue, to save us from drab nothingness in the landscape, come the ornamental grasses! These are truly “four season” plants that need no special care other than a haircut in late winter before new growth commences. They are also dual-function, providing critical food and shelter/nesting material for birds. The following are some of my favorites, and all of these are native to much of the country.

Little Blue Stem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

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Reaching about 3’ in height, Little Blue Stem (as its name suggests) boasts gorgeous blue-green foliage from spring through late summer, dainty white flowers in summer that become dandelion-type seeds in fall, and then as the weather cools, the blades and stems turn an eye-catching combination of blue-green, purple, and red before becoming a striking orange/tan color for late fall into winter.

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Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

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A huge favorite of birds (particularly goldfinches, who feast on the seed heads in fall and winter), Switchgrass provides textured vertical interest in the garden (with the height varying by cultivar; ‘Ruby Ribbons’ tops out at 24”, while ‘Northwind’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ reach 3.5 feet). Lush green or blue-green foliage from spring through early fall, with showy pink or white blooms in summer followed by tan foliage and airy seed heads in fall/winter. ‘Ruby Ribbons’ has burgundy red streaks in the leaves as the weather cools.

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Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)

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This shorter, wider grass (2-3’ tall by 3-4’ wide) is all about the blooms! Rounded mounds of whispy blue-green foliage yields abundant spikes of pink or white blooms (depending on cultivar) by late summer/early fall (in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, earlier farther north). The flower spikes turn tan with the rest of the plant over the winter, providing seeds for birds as well as color and texture in the garden. This grass looks stunning in mass plantings! Muhly grass is generally carefree, but does not like moist or soggy soil, particularly during winter. It requires a well drained soil and performs best in zones 7 and higher.

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Careful where you spread that salt and de-icer

I hope everyone is safe and warm after that big snow (or in some places, ice). Fingers crossed that no damage was done to the plants! A heavy load of snow or ice is the most obvious threat to shrubs and trees, but often overlooked is the danger posed by salt and other de-icing chemicals. Many plants do not react well to excessive salt around their root systems, and will manifest that in leaves yellowing and turning brown, and even eventually dropping leaves altogether. I came across a very detailed PDF that explains how salt and other chemicals negatively impact many (but not all) plants, and how you can avoid salt damage to your shrubs and trees.

https://pdf.countyofdane.com/myfairlakes/A3877.pdf

And a reminder on how to correctly prune crape myrtles; as I’ve been out and about this week, I continue to see people committing “crape murder” and lopping off the main trunks at about chest height. This kind of “pruning” only creates weak new growth, and unsightly “knobs” where the new branches grow out of the older wood.

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Thinking outside the Knockout

Roses are red, violets are blue; Knockouts are nice, but others are too!

I’ll stop there before I make you cringe any further with my lame attempt at poetry.

You see them just about everywhere now…the ubiquitous red Knockout rose. And for good reason. They are disease resistant, hardy, and bloom prolifically from spring through early fall. And they come in multiple colors (red, pink, white, yellow, to name a few), and single or double blooms. And I don’t mean to “knock” on the Knockouts, but as with any popular plant, I always advocate for the use of a variety of cultivars. And there are still many great shrub roses out there with the same carefree nature as the Knockouts. Case in point, I just planted this beauty last week, in a wine barrel.

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This rose is a compact, dwarf variety called Suntory Sunrosa™ Red. It stays on the small side, not getting much bigger than 1 foot tall by 2 feet wide. The blooms are smaller than the Knockouts but color is a true red and the flowers have a Carnation appearance to them. Additionally, they are super disease resistant and easy to grow, requiring less pruning than the Knockouts to maintain a nice shape and size. And like the Knockouts, this rose also comes in yellow and pink!

Another series of shrub rose I’m fond of is the Oso Easy™ collection from Proven Winners. These roses come in a wider array of colors/flower shapes and growth habit than the Knockouts, but with the same easygoing nature.

And lastly, another favorite of mine is the Carefree™ Wonder Rose. This shrub rose boasts large, double pink (and lightly fragrant!) blooms on a disease resistant plant that gets a little bigger than the first two roses I mentioned.

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My bad poetry aside, hopefully I gave you some ideas and inspiration to try some new roses in you garden this fall and next spring!

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Yellows and oranges and reds, oh my!

Ah, October. Without a doubt my favorite time of the year, when the mornings are cool and crisp but not yet cold…perfect for apple picking in the Shenandoah Valley, passing through rustic small towns, sipping hot cider. And, of course, getting some fall planting done, with a mind towards fall color in the garden, one last “hurrah” from nature before many shrubs and trees go to sleep for the winter.

I’ve put together a little slideshow featuring my top picks for plants that will light up the garden in shades of yellow, orange, and red. They are all native to the eastern U.S. and are easy to grow, and most of them are beneficial for wildlife as well. As long as temperatures stay above freezing, you can continue to plant.

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After a brief “paws”, garden work resumes

I have a legitimate excuse this time for the long gap between updates. My wife and I recently brought this cute little guy home:

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So, as I’m sure you can imagine, the last two weeks have been spent getting him settled in. Mostly a lot of “no, don’t eat that” or “oh, I see you have to go potty right now.” It’s all good though, he’s very sweet and a lot of fun to have around!

But this has meant that work in the garden has been proceeding at a slower pace. Weeds got a little out of control while we were tending to little Orsillo. But, I managed to plant several different native perennials (Coneflower, Black Eyed Susans, and Yarrow) next to the deck, and as you can see, there is still a ton of space to fill in.

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I’m going for a meadow/prairie look here, so I’ll likely add some ornamental grasses (like Schyzachyrium (Little Blue Stem) or Panicum (Switch Grass) as well as Monarda (Bee Balm) and Liatris (Gayfeather). All of these plants will benefit wildlife, in addition to (hopefully) choking out the Bermuda grass that constantly tries to creep in and take over everything.

Not far from this spot, the Arborvitae and Red Twig dogwoods I planted along the back of the house are looking great!

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The dogwoods are beginning to flower; the blooms themselves are not particularly showy, but that’s just fine, because the berries are the real prize later in the summer. By late fall, the stems of the dogwoods are a bright red and will contrast nicely with the green of the Thuja I planted between them.

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In the edible garden, we’ve been enjoying a steady flow of green beans, zucchini, and okra, with tomatoes just now starting to come in, and peppers, eggplant, cantaloupe and watermelon soon to follow. You can find pics of the vegetable garden and much more up on my Instagram page.

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A word about pruning crape myrtles

It never ceases to amaze me how many people buy crape myrtles without giving a thought to how big they’ll get in a short amount of time. I say this because I all-too-frequently am seeing crape myrtles being cut back way too hard in late winter and early spring, even by landscapers who ought to know better.

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Hacking back crape myrtles to 3’ stumps not only results in the loss of blooms for the the next two, possibly three seasons, but produces new growth that is weaker and less cold hardy than the older wood that was cut away. Not to mention the unsightly “knobs” that form around where the trunk is repeatedly cut year after year.

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If you’re finding that you have to prune back your crape myrtle that severely, then you’ve probably picked the wrong plant for that spot. But if you really don’t want to go without a crape myrtle, there are a growing number of new dwarf cultivars that stay smaller, many of them small shrubs rather than medium sized trees. These new cultivars include:

But in any case, it’s still a good idea to know how to properly prune crape myrtles. Ideally, you want to only remove broken branches, and branches that are crossing/rubbing up against each other, or facing inwards towards the center of the plant.

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When finished, the crape myrtle should appear thinned out while still maintaining it’s natural shape and structure:

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Hey winter, take a hike! I’ve got planting to do

It’s been a long couple of weeks, waiting for old man winter to pack his bags and hit the road. Up until the last few days, mornings have been frigid with highs at or just below the freezing mark. Having learned a long time ago to temper my itch to start planting, I didn’t have to worry about any damage from our recent late frosts. In fact, I took advantage of the mild afternoons to get a lot of prep work done, in anticipation of spring finally arriving for real:

And after finishing up some hoeing and weeding the other day, I found one of the neighbor’s chickens roaming our back yard, pecking at bugs, seemingly unbothered by my presence.

Neighbors buff orpington on bug patrol in our yard

A video posted by Rudie V (@the_garden_dude) on Apr 16, 2016 at 3:24pm PDT

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