Friday, January 31, 2014

Texture in the Prairie Garden: Fine

So my last post highlighted some plants with bold foliage for inclusion in prairie gardens;  this one will highlight plants with finely textured foliage.

Finely textured foliage can also make a plant stand out in the garden - contrast is what it's all about, breaking up the masses of "medium."

Sand Love Grass:

I'm going to start here with a grass, specifically with sand love grass (Eragrostis trichodes).  Native to a large portion of the U.S., this grass is perfect for inclusion in a prairie garden.  Not only are the leaves of this grass narrow and finely textured, but the seed heads, from late summer through into the early spring, are like a fine mist of light golden-brown a really pretty, good sort of way!

The fine texture of this grass, coupled with its height of about 3' max in my garden, makes it a natural in various combinations with flowers.  Here it is with azure sage (Salvia azurea, aka Salvia pitcherii)....

and with aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius).

So far, sand love grass makes any plant growing and blooming near it into a superstar!

The one drawback to sand love grass in my garden is that it does seed fairly prolifically.  Since I hate to throw away good plants, for the first several years I let the seedlings take hold wherever they fell and, within a couple years, sand love grass took over an area about 4' in diameter in my flower bed.  If I had planned it this way, that would have been wonderful...but I hadn't, so I've started ruthlessly (kind of) rooting out extra plants and giving them away or consigning them to the compost pile.  The little plants root out surprisingly easily, considering this plant's ability to withstand drought, and I've successfully transplanted it to several other locations throughout the yard.

Letterman's Ironweed:

I stumbled across Letterman's ironweed almost by accident at one of the Dyck Arboretum plant sales.  I love the deep purple of Baldwin's ironweed, which commonly grows in pastures around here, so when I saw a few little 3" pots of a feathery looking ironweed, I grabbed one to try.  I knew absolutely nothing about the species except the name and the look of the foliage. 

Even more amazingly (at least to those of you who know me well), I actually got this little plantling into the ground before it turned into a native plant mummy.  The tiny ironweed rewarded my courage and initiative by grabbing hold and growing into one of the prettiest, most feathery, most pollinator-loved plants in the garden!

Letterman's ironweed (Vernonia lettermannii) has become one of my absolute favorites.  It maxes out (for me) at about 18" tall and the plant forms a neat clump which is topped with feathery, bright purple flowers from mid to late summer.  Letterman's ironweed is native to a very small region of eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, where it grows naturally along rocky floodplains.  As is often the case with plants from floodplain habitat, this means it can withstand both periodic flooding and long dry spells.  The pollinators flock to the flowers...and I often find predators hiding among its leaves too.

For better or for worse, one thing that this wonderful plant hasn't done is to reseed itself.  So, for now, I've had to buy a couple more little baby plants, which are also beginning to grab hold.  This is a beautifully soft textured plant for a sunny spot in your garden.


Moving now from finely textured plants to a transition effect before we make it completely into ferny foliaged wonders, I'm going to break my normal rules and talk about a plant that isn't truly a native, larkspur.  Common, annual, garden larkspur (Consolida ajacis), apparently also known as doubtful knight's-spur.   (Why isn't THAT the more commonly used, common name!  Talk about evocative!)  Not only is larkspur not a native, it's also not a perennial.  Actually, it's one of the few annuals that I grow every single year, and I love it.

The foliage is sublime, in my eyes.  The plants begin to grow in late summer and fall, spending winter looking like tiny ferns sprouting in the flower bed.  As soon as spring arrives, they get serious about growing and rapidly bulk up.  By mid May they are shooting up into 24" - 36" tall plants with purply blue to pink delphinium-like flowers, which are beloved by bumblebees, hawk moths, and hummingbirds.

Larkspur can take some shade, so they are a good plant for a spot that only gets half a day of sunlight.  They are incredibly drought hardy, which is one of the reasons I love them so much.  And when they need water, they wilt very daintily - just enough to catch my attention.  As soon as I give them what they want, they plump back up and continue on as if nothing had ever happened.

When the flowers are done, the larkspur plants are done.  Seeds are rapidly produced as the plant begins to die.  By early July, it's time to pull the remains of the larkspur out of the flower bed and let the later summer flowers come into their own.

Remember my comment earlier about being loath to pull out and throw away perfectly good plants?  Well, that leads to the biggest problem that I have with larkspur:  I can't bear to pull out the baby plants, so I let the larkspur grow pretty much wherever it wants, which drives my dear husband mad.  He feels they get too thick and overpowering and unruly looking; I don't think it's possible for such a thing to occur.  About the time we're ready to come to blows over the issue, the larkspur finishes blooming.  I pull them all out, and the problem is forgotten until the next year.

It's late, and this is long enough for one post, so I think I'll finish up my "Texture in the Prairie Garden" series with a third post, the last one, on ferny textures.  Again, I welcome suggestions for other finely textured, native prairie plants - I'd love to find some more of these softies to include around the yard!


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