Friday, August 01, 2014

Cleaner, Greener Office Spaces

The modern office (or "Cube Farm") is generally a product of strict efficiency and economic design. Lines are straight, wall-coverings are bland, windows are sealed shut, lights fluorescent, and cubicles ubiquitous. And this is where many of us spend the better part of our lives. Perhaps it’s time to consider personalizing – and naturalizing – these uninviting spaces. And the best place to start might be with a favorite houseplant brought from home.

It’s amazing what a welcome addition a plant can be in the workplace. It’s just a simple little living thing, and yet, perched amid the photocopied reports, Post-it notes, and tangled telephone cord, it has the power to transform even the most cluttered of desktops into something uniquely you -- and special.

Even if you have only one African violet by your elbow, it might be enough to distract you from your spreadsheet for a few moments to examine whether a new batch of flowering buds is forming. Perhaps an office mate will wander over to ask you how often you feed your plant, or where you got it. In a sterile environment, that humble plant is an oasis of life. Your spreadsheet can wait.

And if one plant can work such wonders, what about an office-full of them? Truly, plants can enhance the modern office in ways that most people can barely imagine.

Aesthetically, plants can add color and texture to almost any space, however plain. Taller plants or groupings of larger plants can become living architecture to help direct foot traffic, soften harsh corners, create privacy in seating areas, or add verticality in an unending sea of cubicles. Hanging or elevated planters can create a sense of movement when filled with hanging grape ivy or trailing philodendron vines.

Using similar plants throughout a larger space can also provide a unifying or cohesive element, tying and blending together a disparate array of desks, copying machines, doorways, cabinets, and partitions. The final impression is calming and ordered, rather than chaotic.

Plants can function as eye-catching focal points, or discretely mute or camouflage unattractive features. Above all, they add a sense of vitality to an interior landscape of metal and machines.
They can also play a substantial role in promoting physical and psychological health. Clinical studies in Britain and Northern Europe have shown that plants in the workplace reduced stress levels and fatigue by more than 30 percent, along with the symptoms associated with colds and flu, such as coughing and sore throats.

These green allies can also promote good health by cleaning a host of potentially dangerous pollutants from indoor air. Those veneer-and-laminate bookcases, formica-clad desks, carpets, painted walls, and computers, printers, and fax machines are off-gassing a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. All-in-all, it’s a nasty stew of bad air, generally trapped – along with you – in a closed loop ventilation system.

Fortunately, there’s Mother-in-law’s tongue. I don’t mean my mother-in-law, Melva, who’s also very helpful and health-conscious, but the plant, also known as snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata). This popular and sturdy plant grows elegantly tall, and sometimes flowers, even in low-light, and it is an absolute whiz at snatching pollutants from the air.

But Sansevieria are not alone in this ability. NASA studies in the late 1970s identified a large number of common indoor plants capable of filtering VOCs from the air. They ranged from aloe vera, which needs bright light, but is easy to divide and share with office mates – and serves as a nifty balm for paper-cut fingers, to magenta-striped dracaena, peace lily, and golden pothos, perhaps the toughest indoor plant around.

Simply put, most of the plants best suited to indoor conditions can help clean indoor air. Moreover, ongoing studies show that plants clean the air not only through the stomata or microscopic pores on the leaf surface, much like the filters in home furnaces and HVAC systems, but also through the action of bacteria in the potting soil, which normally make nutrients available for the plant’s root system.

In controlled environments, the soil microorganisms were capable of removing and absorbing up to 20 percent of the air contaminants. Together with the plants themselves, these invisible colonies represent an indoor living system functioning much like the trees, grasses, and algae found outdoors.

But the real value of introducing plants probably goes deeper than stress-busting, filtration, and d├ęcor. In a world that keeps us indoors far-too-long, bringing a bit of the outdoors inside keeps us connected with a larger living world. And beyond the momentary distraction of looking at a blooming bromeliad, the plants also require watering, feeding, and care. They require a time apart from the routine of databases and spam-deletion – a time to actually nurture another living thing. Surely that’s a simple enough bit of occupational therapy.

And then there’s the issue of community – human, not plant. In a world of passwords and name badges, your salmon-budded kalanchoe is a bridge to fellow workers. Perhaps you might divide up one of your succulents for them, or share the decades-old history of your mother’s braided willow-leaf ficus, now thriving by your window. They in turn might bring in a rooted cutting for you, or ask to share a window ledge for their Christmas cactus. That’s how friendships – and communities -- start.

Your office plant can stretch forth your personality, invite a much-needed compliment, and allow you to share and connect with others. It shows, quite humbly, as Shakespeare noted, that “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rethinking the Townhouse Garden

There’s no denying that townhouse communities are popping up like weeds across the land. Townhouses are popular and often more affordable than single family homes, and with a bit of horticultural slight of hand, they can provide almost as many satisfying garden options as larger yards.

The trick to mastering these smaller, confined landscape areas is to realize the inherent limitations of your site, and to create the illusion of more space.

First of all, remember that this is not a normal landscaping project. Your 500 to 1,000 square foot patch of earth, possibly with neighbors on each side, is not going to accommodate a towering oak. In fact, large trees can make small spaces seem even smaller.

That’s not to say that trees are not welcome in your miniature back-forty. In fact, smaller trees, or shrubs trained into tree-form, can and should provide visual anchors or structure for your overall design. Choose species which feature open “scaffolding,” as well as year-round appeal, such as serviceberry, flowering crabapple, fringe tree, redbud, or some of the exquisite Japanese maples, with their intricately fine-cut leaves and colorful foliage.

Espaliered trees can also become vital elements in a sunny yard encompassed by a tall fence. A host of fruit and ornamental species are available at area nurseries, already trained to grow vertically with formally-spaced branches stretching out across a flat surface. Instead of a dull expanse of fence, you could enjoy a living wall of tasty apples, pears, plums, and apricots, or colorful magnolias, hollies, junipers, and yews.

Of course, the goal is not merely to camouflage fences and fill in empty space. A townhouse garden should strive to appear larger and more varied than it really is. One of the most successful approaches is to divide the yard into several “garden rooms,” each with a unique character.

For example, plant a free-flowing hedge along the outside edge of a patio using ornamental grasses. Select up to several species of the taller grasses to provide variety in color and texture. Plant the grasses in odd-numbered clumps, all of the same species, and, for additional color and contrast, surround each grouping with masses of colorful perennials, such as daylilies, black-eyed susans, joe-pye weed, and coneflowers.

These plantings will physically and visually separate your patio or outdoor living area from the rest of the garden, and cleverly tease the eye into thinking that the yard goes on quite a bit further. Moreover, these graceful grasses, gently tossed by a breeze, also provide a delightful sense of motion, which will make your landscape seem larger.

A second-story deck need not serve as merely a viewing platform. Along the outer edge place one of more trellises in or against decorative containers or tubs. These structures can then sport a dazzling collection of clematis or other ornamental climbers. Properly arranged, these vertical elements can similarly separate your deck from the rest of your garden, providing a colorful frame for gazing outward, while also adding a welcome bit of privacy from the neighbors.

And don’t forget that your deck structure itself can be visually softened by training colorful climbers and vines against the otherwise stark supporting posts and railings of a second-story deck.

Beyond the deck and patio, you can further separate your yard into unique areas with the addition of structures such as pergolas, garden arches, and arbors. Any of these can provide living windows to the rest of your garden, an incomplete glimpse of the whole, which implies mystery and inspires curiosity.

In smaller spaces, traditional wooden gazebos might seem well out of place and scale, but townhouse gardeners can turn to a number of recently available metal and wrought-iron gazebos, which are little more than attractive frameworks onto which perennial or annual vines can be trained. Quickly and inexpensively, another garden room is created, as is a secondary destination for entertaining or relaxing. Just add a bistro table, chairs, and bottle of wine, and you might forsake your deck altogether.

Small spaces have other advantages for gardeners on a budget. Ponds and other water features can frequently cost a great deal in both money and maintenance responsibilities. Yet for a townhouse garden, one can easily manage a smaller, prefabricated pond, pre-planted whiskey barrel wetland, or solar-powered fountain.

Even a single Victorian gazing ball, faux-gothic concrete statue, or gleaming copper birdbath can become a unique and dramatic centerpiece in your garden. Exercise restraint, however, and employ these elements sparingly. In a small space, too many “artistic” elements can quickly become clutter.

The divisions you create in your yard using trees, planting areas, and foliage-draped structures should be joined together with a free-flowing pathway meandering around the plantings and through structures and other garden rooms. Strive to create a route wherein each turn will reveal a new and interesting view. Avoid straight paths which will unfortunately create an impression of cells, rather than the illusion of an unfolding series of gardens.

And don’t forget about the plants! Small space gardening requires more planning and care in plant selection. If your townhouse or a neighboring fence casts a deep shadow over your garden, you will need to think of plants best suited for shade.

Select plants with extended bloom periods, and interweave plants with varied flowering periods so that no bed is ever without interesting color or texture. Also use layered plantings, such as placing spring bulbs under later-blooming perennials.

Add distinctive wrought-iron hanging baskets and richly glazed containers overflowing with annuals to add spots of color to drab areas. Containers also allow you to use exotic tropical plants and tender perennials outdoors during warmer weather; just bring them inside before late season frosts.

Clearly, the challenges posed by a townhouse lot are offset by using the site creatively. For most homeowners, a yard is just a yard. For townhouse gardeners, it’s an opportunity to create a world (or worlds) in miniature, with vine-covered entertaining spaces, a pleasant path toward a gurgling fountain, a kitchen garden thriving beneath an espaliered apple tree. In reality, the only limiting thing about a townhouse garden is the imagination.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Time for a Water-Wise Landscape

During the hottest summer months, our lawns and gardens face a number of environmental challenges which threaten their health and beauty. Wilting and discoloration of lawns and foliage is a common example, as are flowers dropping buds, or tomatoes succumbing to blossom-end rot. And yet these symptoms also herald additional complications, as voracious insect pests and fungal diseases find an easy prey in plants under stress. The root of the problem is soil moisture and whether plants are getting enough to drink during cloudless, 90 degree days.

The solution to dry soils and drought, however, is not simply to run a hose and run up a huge water bill. Watering is very often the most wasteful and expensive of solutions -- with improper watering or overwatering leading to even more short and long-term problems for the landscape. To keep your corner of the globe green, it is best to become water-wise.

Liquid Lawn Care

Lawns are the dominant part of most landscapes. Grass is easy to put in, especially over a large area, but keeping grass green and lush is another story. Lawns are notorious water hogs, with most doting homeowners applying much more water than a lawn really needs, often squandering as much as 100,000 gallons on a typical quarter-acre suburban lot. Fortunately, there are a number of simple water-wise practices that can actually improve the health of your lawn, while saving money, time, and tens of thousands of gallons of precious water.

Stop watering. Although it sounds like lawn care heresy, most grasses (except bluegrass) can safely be allowed to enter a period of dormancy during the driest part of the summer. In fact, dormancy is a natural mechanism to help grass survive drought and heat. Your lawn will recover with the return of rain and cooler temperatures.

Stop fertilizing. The worst possible time in the year to apply fertilizer is in the summer. That jolt of nutrient pushes grass plants to grow unsustainably, risking health and vigor, and interrupting root development when it is most needed. Wait until fall before even thinking about fertilizing.

Grasscycle. Let grass clippings remain on the lawn when you mow, and cut your grass no lower than 3 inches. Clippings are over 90 percent water, and, as they filter to the soil surface, they provide a temporary layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture; taller grass also shades the soil, reducing surface heat and evaporation.

Watering do's and don'ts. If you must water, do it right. Water only in the early morning, never during the day or in the evening; improper watering can lead to fungal diseases or scalded foliage. Do not water on windy days, as breezes only hasten evaporation. Do not water driveways, streets or sidewalks; in addition to wasting water, runoff entering stormdrains can elevate stream temperatures and harm or kill sensitive fish and other aquatic life.

Water lawns only when they need it, normally when foliage appears dull, bluish-grey, or when walking on grass leaves footprints. Avoid frequent and shallow waterings which can cause thatch and shallow, drought-sensitive roots. Lawns require about one inch of water, although no more than once a week. To measure, place a flat pan under the sprinkler until one inch of water has accumulated, then move to a new location. Ensure that soil is moistened to a depth of four to six inches by pushing a screwdriver into the ground as your indicator. Turn off your hose if water starts to spill onto paved areas; wait 30 minutes, and resume watering.

The Water-Wise Landscape

As lawns require about five times more water than other plants in the landscape, the best water-wise practice is to reduce the amount of space dedicated to turfgrass, while also improving the quality of the soil and its moisture-holding ability.

Eliminate the competition. Lawns often run right up to and under trees and shrubs. However, grass roots easily "steal" water from these other plants, while still struggling to survive in the shade. Instead of grass, substitute an organic mulch, such as wood chips, shredded leaves or leaf mold, or plant ground covers -- you can even combine the both options for a low-water, low-maintenance, and attractive planting area.

Expand planting beds. Increase privacy and landscape value by developing "planting islands" in your sea of grass. Plant trees and shrubs in spacious, sweeping beds, rather than individually. Existing trees and shrubs can also be linked together as planting islands by adding an additional tree or two and replacing the lawn area between them with mulch or ground covers. In sunnier spots, "mulch islands" can be established, utilizing ornamental grasses, showy perennials, and hardy native plants. Eventually, over a period of time, these individual "islands" can become the dominant landscape feature, with lawn areas now serving as easily-managed green lakes and open spaces among a more natural, graceful, and beautiful setting.

Mass plantings. Similar to planting islands for trees, it is best to mass plants together, rather than spreading them across a broad area. Massed plantings have a stronger visual impact than a row of annuals dotted in front of shrubbery. Moreover, by grouping plants together according to similar water needs, they can be cared for much more easily, and can more readily care for themselves. A thick, established group of plants will keep out weeds and will shade the soil around their root zones, thereby conserving precious moisture and reducing drastic changes in soil temperature.

Xeriscaping. Although xeriscaping (xeros = dry) originally related to landscaping in extremely dry climates, its principles, which include using water-efficient and drought-tolerant plants, fit well with our water-wise goals. For example, using regionally adapted plants, such as the growing variety of natives, ensures that the plant can handle this area's seasonal temperatures and rainfall, along with other environmental and soil conditions. But non-natives can also be used to add color and texture to the garden, especially those which are suited for dry, sunny locations, like many of the Mediterranean herbs: rosemary, thyme, etc. Generally speaking, silver-grey plants, such as Dusty Miller, Artemisia, Santolina, and so, feature foliage which reflect sunlight, thereby keeping the plant cool and reducing water loss. However, xeriscaping does not mean using only colorless plants, Yuccas and Prickly pear cactus -- it does mean using the right plant in the right place. See below.

Mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulching with organic materials is one of the easiest methods for conserving soil moisture and providing long-term soil improvement. Mulches can be placed on soil up to four inches deep, except over shallow-rooted plants like azaleas. After applying mulch, especially when using wood chips or materials which appears dry, it is advisable to water both mulch and plants thoroughly at first. Dry mulch might otherwise keep moisture from percolating into the soil. Woody mulches are best used around permanent plantings, like trees and shrubs, while finer textured mulches, such as untreated grass clippings, compost, shredded leaves and leaf mold, are preferable for tender plantings, such as annual and perennial flowers and vegetables.

Compost, aerating, topdressing. Improving soil quality will also improve its soil retention ability. Garden beds can be amended by adding compost, either by digging it in manually or rototilling it into the soil, which is best done in autumn or early spring. Existing beds can be improved by using compost as a mulch or sidedressing anytime of year. Aerating a lawn allows air to reach grass roots, helps microorganisms break down organic matter to feed the lawn naturally, and facilitates water penetration. Topdressing is the practice of applying compost to the surface of the lawn up to one-half inch deep, increasing the soil's organic content, enhancing earthworm activity, and serving as a mulch to protect shallow grassroots.

Becoming water-wise can be as simple as changing some everyday practices -- or as involved and comprehensive as changing the face of your landscape. Like most endeavors, your success depends upon a program which matches your interests, abilities, and available resources -- although the ultimate goal of the water-wise landscape is to safeguard our existing water resources, and to provide more time for your other interests.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, July 28, 2014

Your Pathway to Fragrance

There is something special about pathways. Some lead directly to the welcome mat of our homes, while others lead to secluded patios and gardens. Pathways can extend an invitation to friends and guests or lead us away on new adventures. Unfortunately, most of the paths we typically design are sterile ribbons of concrete. However, with some alternate paving materials and a nose for fragrant ground covers, we can transform those lifeless, static pathways into a welcome treat for the senses.

To begin, we should avoid the whole notion of paving itself. Instead of treating our path like a public sidewalk, with rigid lines and precise curves, we ought to realize that we are creating a walkway, a place for strolling or occasional foot traffic. We will not need steel-reinforced concrete here. A more desirable path ought to become an extension of the garden or landscape. To create a much more natural impression, the path can be constructed with multicolored flat or rough-textured stepping stones, which will provide an air of rustic simplicity.

For heavily used paths, consider using mountain or Mojave flagstones, or bluestones, which are often available either tumbled or irregularly cut. Other options include granite cobblestones, precast cement pavers with open spaces at their center, or even bricks, with the bricks laid in a somewhat open and meandering pattern. All of the materials should be arranged to allow for openings between the actual "stepping stones," into which we will plant a variety of foot-friendly and aromatic ground covers.

Between and around our stepping-stones we can work some real horticultural magic. Forget about grass, gravel, and mulch! Our fragrant pathway will feature a living tapestry of herbs in shades of green, gold, white and silver, with a succession of blooms from pink and red to lilac and dazzling white. Best of all, our path will provide a haunting tapestry of rich aromas, each of which will add yet another sensual dimension to the garden. With each step you will discover that these natural perfumes can stir warm memories, invigorate the senses, and soothe the soul.

One of the most readily available ground-hugging herbs is Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), a tough, fast-spreading favorite whose tiny peppermint-scented leaves form a dense mat less than one inch high. Corsican mint can even send tiny shoots between the smallest cracks in a brick path, and will splash up against stepping-stones like waves from a bright green sea. Corsican mint produces Lilliputian white and purple flowers and reseeds rapidly each spring. You will almost have to stop yourself from rolling around on top of your walkway.

Another seductive ground cover is sometimes called lawn chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile 'Trenegue'), a non-flowering species similar to Roman chamomile, the daisy-like flowering chamomile sometimes used in teas, as is the unrelated German or sweet false chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Lawn chamomile seldom grows much taller than two inches and its soft fern-like, apple-scented leaves welcome light foot traffic. In fact, in Britain it is sometimes used to create an entire lawn (25 plants per square yard), perhaps a useful suggestion for townhouse owners who want a lush and fragrant green yard without mowing. However, this perennial chamomile sometimes requires a bit of patching after a couple of years, and might best be kept within a pathway setting. The plants may also be started from seed.

Without question, the most versatile of fragrant herbs for walkways and alternative lawns is thyme. Thyme is ideal for hot, sunny locations, although it can tolerate some degree of shade. There are also scores of different varieties, with new selections added every year. Best of all, you can easily establish an ever-changing tapestry effect by planting a dozen or more different varieties in your pathway or "thyme lawn" area, mixing them up, and allowing no more than about one foot between each plant. You will probably want to spend a little time planning your planting scheme to provide an even distribution of plants by foliar and flower color, avoiding keeping all of the silver-hued thymes in one area and the emerald greens in another. You should also be mindful of sequential blooming order. You do not want all of your flowers appearing in one part of the walkway in spring and another in the summer or fall. Select plants which will give you a wide range of blooming periods for year-round enjoyment.

Most garden centers will offer a couple different varieties of ground cover thymes, but for best effect you will probably need to visit a specialized herb nursery or consider the large number of Internet and mail order sources. Herb sellers will easily offer dozens of different varieties for your garden, both as grown plants and seed packets.

Here are some suggestions, all of which are lavishly scented and grow between two and three inches in height: Aureus 'Creeping Golden' thyme, offering bright gold-colored foliage; caraway thyme, with dark green, caraway-scented leaves; creeping lime thyme, combines a bright chartreuse color with a citrus aroma reminiscent of margaritas in mid-summer; creeping red thyme, with deep reddish purple flowers in spring; creeping white moss thyme, with delicate white flowers, creeping woolly thyme, with soft, fuzzy foliage inviting to bare toes and finger tips; lemon frost thyme, offering glossy green leaves and tiny white flowers between May and June; mountain thyme, which offers deep reddish-violet flowers; pink ripple thyme, with light green, lemon-scented foliage and an abundant mass of salmon-pink flowers; and silver thyme, a classic creeping thyme with silver-green leaves and cream-colored margins.

As is the case with all gardening, you may find that some species are not as hardy as others, and some of your plantings may die after an especially cold winter. Do not look on these losses as failures so much as opportunities. Once you get the "thyme bug" you will probably find yourself scouting around for new varieties to add to your scented kaleidoscope, and will welcome an opportunity to squeeze in yet another addition.

Finally, you may want to consider defining the edge of your pathway to set it off from a lawn or other garden area. Keeping within the fragrant theme, you might enjoy developing a mixed border using English lavenders, particularly the 'Hidcote' and 'Munstead' varieties, which have compact growth habits, and hug the ground at about 12 inches. Also, employ some of the larger mounding thymes, such as lime or variegated golden lemon thyme. Other border species could include silver mound artemesia (wormwood), which will add silver-grey accents, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), which offers emerald green herb used flavor May Wine, and honey-scented sweet alyssum, an annual whose profusion of white flowers make it worth replanting each year.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Going Native With Native Grasses

The introduction of ornamental grasses to the American landscape is one of the defining moments in modern garden design. These grasses, planted in clumps or large masses, recall elements of the nation's vanishing prairie, while adding sophistication and panache to even the most groomed garden.

Regrettably, many of the grasses frequently used, especially those with ostrich feather-like plumes or stylish zebra-stripes, are both exotic and invasive, especially when planted near open fields, and can pose serious problems for our local ecosystem. For a more habitat-friendly approach, gardeners can and should turn to the abundant inventory of native grasses which will provide the same elements of year-round color, texture, and graceful, swaying motion.

One of the most widely available and popularly used native grasses is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), or "turkey foot," affectionately dubbed "monarch of the prairie" by some horticultural boosters. Big bluestem was the dominant species of grass which formed our fabled tall grass prairies, as well as the sod used by homesteaders (sodbusters) and pioneers to build sod huts.

Sod dwellings don't show up very much in most parts of the country, but big bluestem does, both in habitat restoration plantings and in backyards, where they are frequently clumped in mulched planting beds or "grass islands" which decoratively float atop a trimmed lawn. Formal plantings also use these seemingly untamed specimens to dramatically frame a front entrance or serve as sentinels at the end of a driveway.

Big bluestem can reach up to ten feet in height and prefers full sun, although it is tolerant of partial shade and either moist heavy, or sandy, drier soils. Like most native grasses, it prefers being left alone, and fertilizing or unnecessary watering will simply lead to floppy growth. This is a tough plant, let it prove itself! The plant's common name comes honestly from its vertical height and the subtle blue tint of the stem. And while the leaves remain bluish-green during much of the year, autumn frosts help transform that foliage to a mellow bronze or copper shade which will last throughout the winter.

The plant's less common name originates with the three-fingered prongs or "rames" of the purplish-blue seed head, which resembles a turkey's foot, and which begin forming in late summer, and provide seed to a host of migratory and native songbirds through early winter.

A close cousin to big bluestem is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which shares many of its relation's best characteristics, although it is best planted in masses for best effect, especially considering the beauty of watching a whole miniature sea of grass swaying their silver seed heads in the breeze.

Also a sun lover, the fluffy, tufts of this species mature on a clump-forming plant destined to stay between two and three feet in height. Like most sod-forming grasses, little bluestem does most of its growing underground, sending roots eight feet deep, which makes it equally adaptable to periods of drought or flooding. These qualities make it ideal for erosion control and mower-free hillside stabilization. It is also salt-tolerant, which nominates it for use as en edging plant along sidewalks and curbs.

For gardeners looking for a mid-size grass, there are few more noteworthy than switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a full sun plant that can adapt to partial shade and either moist or dry conditions. It is wonderfully useful as either a specimen plant, or in small, bush-like clusters, or even planted en masse. Maryland-based garden writer Carole Ottesen favorably compares these massed plantings to a field of wheat. Staying somewhat between three and eight feet tall, depending on soil conditions, the rich green foliage slowly takes on a buttery-cream complexion in fall.

Another attractive and adaptable option for yards with light to moderate shade is bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula). This species is modest in most respects, averaging only two to five feet in height, and producing only moderately attractive, medium-green foliage, turning straw-colored in autumn. However, the bristly seed heads are quite remarkable, resembling by turns an actual bottlebrush or the long quills of a hedgehog, from which the genus name Hystrix (porcupine) is taken.

And while almost all grass seed heads make for wonderful dried or cut flower arrangements, bottlebrush flowers are incomparable when placed in a window for a striking bit of backlighting.

A close rival for flower arranging - and garden use - is northern sea oats, or river oats (Uniola latifolia), a low-growing, shade-tolerant species whose 30 inch height makes for an excellent ground cover or placed along a perennial boarder, where visitors can fully appreciate its drooping clusters of oat-shaped seeds and rusty-orange fall foliage.

In the same vein, broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus), another cousin of the bluestems, works well as a ground cover or for erosion control, with bluish-green clumps keeping to about 20 to 30 inches in height, with another foot or two more for its inflorescence. Like many of our favorite native grasses, autumn brings on a rich orange color, with seeds for meadow birds and the occasional migrant.

Clearly, the range and application of native grasses is limited only by the size of the garden bed or landscape, and its desired use. Taller and medium sized grasses can serve as hedges or screens, to hide unattractive fences or foundations, or more properly as a backdrop for other garden plantings. Typically, these individuals are best spaced two to three feet apart.

Medium to low-growing specimens often work best in larger groupings, planted one to two feet apart, and are used successfully as ground covers, especially those shade-loving or shade-tolerant grasses which can fill in nicely under mature trees with open scaffolding or along the edge of a wooded area.

A key to making the most of native ornamental grasses is combining them with other flowering natives, or non-invasive annuals and perennials, which will compliment the structure and form of the grasses, while providing color during the spring and summer, as well as a low-flowing, spreading appearance.

Lastly, to truly transform your grass islands or prairie shrubbery into an outdoor bouquet, try to marry the bronze, orange, and copper hues of fall foliage, to say nothing of their crimson-purple flowers and rusty-brown seed heads, with the floral display of late-summer and autumn show-offs like joe-pye weed, sunflowers, asters, ironweed, and goldenrods.

With any luck, the memory of your grassy garden, along with vases filled with bold sprays of seed heads, will keep you smiling all winter long.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser